Why community colleges may be the best strategic choice for fall enrollment

President Michael A. Baston with Rockland Community College graduates. (Photo from a previous commencement.)

During these unprecedented times, families with college-age children face difficult decisions about what to do for the fall semester. In an April Art & Science Group poll of graduating high school seniors, more than half reported that a parent or guardian had lost their job or been furloughed, and one in six who had previously planned to attend a four-year school in the fall were near the point of giving up on those plans.

How can students still obtain a valuable college foundation, and perhaps explore new career paths, while facing the uncertainty of an on-campus experience, as their parents navigate job disruption and investment losses all in the time of COVID-19? Luckily, the answers can be found right in our own neighborhoods.

Community colleges not only offer a quality, affordable education close to home, they will actually be the best strategic option in the fall for many families — and not just those with limited resources as a result of the current economic conditions. Today, about half of all bachelor’s degree earners began their education at a community college, and this pandemic will shine a bright light on the contribution of these institutions to the entire educational ecosystem.

A culture of collaboration

In March, like many of the nation’s community colleges, Rockland Community College (RCC) in Suffern, New York, was able to respond quickly to the educational challenges created by the pandemic and extend our spring break to help manage the transition from classroom teaching to online education for both teachers and students. Having established a culture of collaboration over the past two years both internally and externally,

RCC was well-positioned to handle the swift transition because we had already developed a faculty- and staff-driven infrastructure that gave the school the ability and agility to address change. Those same structures helped RCC to communicate with staff and students more easily when the pandemic dictated immediate decisions and decisive actions.

The external relationships we have built throughout the community ensured that we were already creating career pathways and exploration options that will serve students well as they perhaps have to shift their career choices based on a new reality. This is true of most community colleges.

Listening to workforce needs

Contrary to the belief of some, community college isn’t just about checking off general education requirements, but about providing a clear path to meaningful careers. Community colleges have a keen focus on meeting the needs of business and industry in the communities they serve.

RCC has been working with Rockland County business and healthcare leaders to develop programs that get students out of the classroom and into well-paying jobs. Working with business is a strategy for success for everyone. We have been listening carefully to find out what specific skills and backgrounds are needed by employers and then developing solid career paths that lead students directly to workforce opportunities.

Even before graduating, many of these students have proven themselves ready to meet the demands of the real world. To assist with pandemic efforts, more than 20 RCC nursing students volunteered to help out on the front lines in hospitals.

Student-ready institutions

Community colleges are all about anticipating business needs and developing programs to meet those needs. While it is important for a student to be ready for college, we think it is as important for colleges to be “student-ready” — meeting students where they are and offering career options for them to explore.

In addition to two-year degrees in business, education and nursing programs, many courses are transferable as college credit for students who choose to continue their formal education. Many public and private four-year institutions have transfer agreements with community colleges. At least 30 states have policies that guarantee that students with an associate degree can transfer to a four-year school as a junior.

Indeed, over the past five years, RCC graduates have gone on to complete their education at Albany, Binghamton, Stony Brook, Cornell, MIT, Stanford, Georgetown and other prestigious institutions. Thanks to the school’s affordable tuition, students who begin their college careers at RCC before transferring to four-year colleges save as much as $100,000 on their education.

More than a ‘safe’ option

Those who are considering a gap year, or are unsure if they will now feel comfortable going away to school in the fall, should consider community college as the option for staying close to home, reducing overall college expenses while at the same time gaining a quality education.

Students now more than ever need stability, structure and an opportunity to engage in meaningful reflection about the personal and professional life path they should pursue. Community colleges are designed to provide a nurturing, supportive environment that gives students focus as they consider a world of possibilities.

Given the current situation we are all facing as a nation, as well as the value provided by community colleges, they will likely become the first choice for many students this fall and beyond, instead of the “safe” option.

About the Author

Michael A. Baston
is president of Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York.