The view from state systems

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Leaders from three state community college systems this week gave an overview of the challenges facing two-year colleges as a result of the coronavirus, from lingering questions regarding how they can use CARES Act funds, to keeping colleges running with uncertain state funding and budgets.

At this week’s virtual joint board meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees, Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Monty Sullivan, Virginia Community College System Chancellor Glenn DuBois and New Jersey Council of County Colleges President Aaron Fichtner provided insights from their respective states.

Louisiana colleges are grateful that Congress provided community colleges and their students with crucial grants through the CARES Act, but they are also frustrated with the guidance from the U.S. Education Department (ED) on how to spend those funds, with questions still lingering, Sullivan said. Fitchner agreed, adding that giving colleges more flexibility in how to use the funds would help, as many states anticipate sharp decreases in state revenues and budget allocations.  

Virginia, which has already announced that it won’t increase tuition or fees for the coming academic year, also is expecting deep budget reductions. DuBois recommended that colleges put aside 75 percent of the institutional aid received through the CARES Act to mitigate the anticipated cuts.

CTE needs

All three system leaders said that safely reopening campuses is a top priority, and that operations will need to be reimagined in planning for the future. That includes developing safety protocols for facilities, classroom activities and day-to-day operations on campus. They also noted that technology and curriculum need to be aligned and prepared for a subsequent shutdown if there is a need again to shelter in place.

At the same time, colleges are reviewing how to keep operating their career and technical education (CTE) programs, which often require some in-person, hands-on activities. It’s especially important for two-year colleges to continue training “essential” workers, Sullivan noted.

FItchner added that more advocacy is needed for CTE to ensure community colleges are well-positioned to serve the needs of the American workforce. That includes staying connected with businesses and labor unions to determine what skills workers will need during the economic recovery and beyond.

The system leaders also emphasized that Congress needs to allow workers to use Pell grants for high-quality, short-term training programs, which will be even more critical now to help them pay for the education and training required for available jobs.

Other concerns

Uncertainty about enrollment at all higher education institutions is prompting a heightened feeling of competitiveness in recruitment and enrollment, especially among four-year institutions, which are concerned that they won’t be able to provide the usual social experience that comes with living on campus.  

The pandemic also has revealed how current policies are inequitable, something Virginia colleges are working to address in the current environment and for the future, DuBois said.  

Articles on previous virtual AACC/ACCT board meetings:

About the Author

Martha Parham
is senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.