COVID-19’s impact on community college research


Campuses are empty. Some students are dropping classes and others are dropping out of sight. The usual guideposts that community colleges use to measure success for themselves and their students — like retention and graduation rates — have been thrown wildly out of whack by the COVID-19 virus.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has been doing a variety of work since the pandemic started. One area has been policy research. AACC is helping to evaluate some of the impacts of the recently signed federal stimulus legislation — in particular, it is reviewing community college funding estimates calculated by the American Council for Education to get a better sense of the potential effects for member colleges, said Kent Phillippe, AACC’s associate vice president for research and student success. 

The association also is exploring some of the areas that are related to COVID-19 and the implications for community colleges. For example, it is examining the extent of distance education enrollments prior to the pandemic (see DataPoints), and it is beginning to look at the number of first responders and respiratory technicians trained at community colleges, Phillippe said.

Different opportunities

The current upheaval presents challenges but also opportunities for researchers who work to boost outcomes for students and colleges.

Usually this time of year, researchers at the education consultancy EAB would be working with colleges on strategies for retaining students, reforming developmental education or other priorities the schools have identified.

“Obviously, no one could have foreseen what was going to happen with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Christina Hubbard, senior director of community college research at EAB. “When we realized how this was going to be affecting the entire higher ed industry, it was really an all-hands-on-deck sort of response.”

EAB quickly created a website where educators can use the company’s research and resources to address student and operational needs. Its staff is networking daily with campus leaders.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an environment where the higher education community could come together so impressively to make sure that we’re all trying to deploy those best practices,” Hubbard said.

Keeping course

Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University in New York, said he discussed with his board of advisers early on whether the center’s ongoing, grant-funded research on guided pathways, developmental education reform and other topics should continue. The response was an emphatic “yes.”

“We will eventually get beyond this crisis,” Brock said. “If community colleges are going to succeed, if students are going to succeed, then CCRC needs to stay focused on these larger structural and systemic reforms.”

At the same time, the center is looking at past research on remote learning and other relevant topics and will make it available to schools, Brock said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work on technology-based supports for student advising and student services,” he said. “We couldn’t have known it going in, but that probably is even more relevant now given the recent shift to online instruction and services.”

Researchers say some disruption in their work is inevitable. Conferences have been canceled. Field research is impossible. And students are having to make difficult choices as they lose jobs and perhaps become ill or need to care for family members.

“It’s hard to imagine a scenario where student outcomes will be improving in the short run,” Brock said. “But one good thing about the kind of work we do is that it tends to be longitudinal. So we will continue to collect files this year, next year and the year beyond. If this was a temporary setback, we will be able to see that.”

What students will say

The Center for Community College Student Engagement, at the University of Texas at Austin, conducts a spring survey in which students around the nation answer dozens of questions about their academic year’s experiences. How often did they contribute to class discussions? What types of interaction did they have with teachers? How many hours a week did they spend studying, working and commuting?

The extensive survey gives colleges a picture of the circumstances and practices that contribute to student success. But most students take the survey in a classroom with paper and pencil, said Linda Garcia, the center’s executive director. This year, the center is offering schools extended deadlines, more online choices and the option to skip a year altogether.

The staff is also considering new, pandemic-related items to add to future surveys. Information about how students are handling finances, stresses and the move to remote learning could be valuable to colleges moving forward.

“I think right now it’s all about connection,” Garcia said. “Making sure students still feel valued and they’re seen and heard through this pandemic.”

Areas of focus

The COVID-19 fallout is creating unusual circumstances that community college sector researchers say they’ll be tracking.

Many schools have allowed or encouraged students to take classes on a pass/fail basis. Researchers and school leaders are curious to see how that will affect transfers to four-year colleges.

They’ll also be watching the move to online learning and the equity concerns that go with it.

“We have some of our more disadvantaged student populations being sent home from their college campuses,” Hubbard said. “They may have never taken an online class and never wanted to take an online class. And now they’re finding themselves thrust into that virtual environment, and being taught by professors who, quite frankly, may not have wanted to teach online. So that can be incredibly challenging.”

Monitoring equity

Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, executive director of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the current disruption would teach the sector a lot about equity.

“I would argue that this health emergency doesn’t absolve campuses of thinking about how to advance equitable educational outcomes,” she said. “It actually brings into even more stark focus the need to look at what we’re doing to support students. It is an opportunity from a research perspective, but it is also tragic because of what we may end up learning.”

Researchers are also thinking ahead to what the COVID-19 outbreak and its economic disruptions will mean for future community college enrollment.

Two-year colleges have seen their numbers climb in previous downturns, as out-of-work adults sought to upgrade credentials. Researchers aren’t sure to what extent that will happen this time.

“I hope that this is an opportunity for people to upskill, but the lack of a timeline makes this incredibly difficult,” Hubbard said. “How do you commit to some kind of certificate or  start thinking about summer classes when nobody knows when life is going to resume its normal pace?”

Watching workforce needs

Luke Jankovic, executive vice president of higher education at the labor analytics firm EMSI, said the company is making available on its website daily data about hiring patterns around the nation. Researchers are also preparing reports that will give colleges a picture of job disruption in their region, and show how many jobless workers have previously been connected with the colleges. That should help college leaders predict how many students may be enrolling for retraining.

Because the vast wave of unemployment has been caused by a health emergency and not structural economic defects, in theory the job market should rebound quickly once the emergency passes, Jankovic said.

But the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19 make predictions difficult, he added.

“The institutions that can adapt are the ones that are going to thrive,” Jankovic said. “Community colleges are better suited for adaptation than others. So that would be my encouragement. Don’t look for somebody to tell you what the future is going to be. Look for how to organize toward adaptation, toward flexibility, as we learn how this works out.”

About the Author

Barbara Shelly
Barbara Shelly is a higher education writer in Kansas City, Missouri.