The COVID-19 pandemic, upsurge in unemployment and social unrest are leading to soul-searching among community college leaders on how they can best serve their students and communities.
Four presidents discussed how their institutions are adapting to those new realities during a panel discussion on Wednesday at Jobs for the Future’s Horizons virtual conference.
“This is a moment in the life of our colleges and country where our emotional intelligence has to be kicked up to a higher level,” said Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College (RCC) in New York, in response to the renewed attention on equity, as well as the pandemic.
He said college presidents should ask themselves: “Is your institution culturally responsible?”
The way community colleges respond to these issues is at “the intersection of the head and the heart,” said Marcia Ballinger, president of Lorain County Community College (LCCC) in Ohio. As people struggle to meet their basic needs, engagement with students, faculty, staff and the community needs to happen within a “culture of caring.”
Students needed love and support before COVID, and now they need more of it, said Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College in Texas. The number of students who can’t meet their basic needs has expanded significantly, and “a single CARES (Act) check is not going to solve the problem,” he said.
He added: “Now is our opportunity to completely reimagine ourselves to serve our communities in ways we haven’t dreamed of before COVID.”
Since the pandemic struck, Amarillo has provided significantly more emergency aid and food assistance to students than ever before, Lowery-Hart noted, leading to questions about how to “deepen the culture of caring in a post-COVID world.”
Personal contact with students
When all staff was required to work from home, Lowery-Hart realized how important it is for student support staff to be on campus. To make up for the loss of face-to-face relationships, he asked key employees to call and email five students every week.
“That personal connection was really, really important,” Lowery-Hart said. As a result, the withdrawal rate in the spring semester was 3 percent less than last year.
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) also assigned a corps of “remote student specialists” to reach out to students who weren’t showing up for virtual classes, said President Anne Kress.
“We were very focused on academic continuity to make sure students can finish the semester,” Kress said. “What we learned is that there is so much more to our campuses than delivery of academic content. Our colleges provide student supports and a sense of place.”
During online chat sessions, she heard lots of technical questions about NOVA’s grading policy that revealed underlying emotional issues.
“We have come to see students more as individuals,” Kress said. Looking at college policies and programs “with a lens to equity has never been more important.”
What worked well at RCC was an extraordinary level of collegiality among faculty members as they made the transition to virtual classes, Baston said.
“Folks really and truly rallied together to support students,” he said.
For Ballinger, a major challenge was honoring the commitment “to get students to the finish line in all programs.”
That meant getting creative and securing flexibility from the state in how healthcare clinicals and workforce programs are carried out.
LCCC officials worked with the Ohio Association of Community Colleges and the Ohio Department of Higher Education to persuade regulatory bodies to allow students in critical fields to start working before they passed their licensing exams.
For Baston, the biggest concern is shrinking college budgets, as states and localities cope with declining tax revenues. That’s especially difficult at a time when people need community colleges more than ever, he said.
“We have an opportunity to be a resource to the community, but we lack the resources to do that,” Baston said.
Another worry he has is the need to prepare students for the “titanic shifts” in the world of work. Due to the rise of telecommuting, he said, people are less bound to specific places, and that means more competition for jobs.
Kress is worried about summer melt. Some high school graduates whose senior year was disrupted lost the motivation to enroll in college.
“How can we somehow save that senior year and help them move forward?” she asked.
To address that problem, NOVA offered recent high school graduates a chance to take two three-credit college courses tuition-free this summer. That offer proved popular.
“We had to shut off the faucet after 3,500 students signed up,” she said.
That shows there is a demand, but there also is a capacity issue. “We could lose an entire generation,” Kress said.
LCCC’s Ballinger noted that the multiple simultaneous challenges – accelerated globalization, recession, pandemic and post-pandemic – make it particularly difficult. Ballinger said.
“There is no roadmap for this,” she said.
One note of optimism: “Our communities are thinking about us,” Ballinger said. When Ohio abruptly turned to voting by mail in March, there was a tax increase on the ballot for LCCC.
“We were so fearful that we would lose local support,” Ballinger said. Instead, the measure passed with 60 percent of the vote.
Lowery-Hart called for “policy actions around student support, especially in the war zone of poverty they are experiencing because of COVID-19.” Federal laws that exclude community college students from assistance, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), need to be changed, he said.
Kress called for more assistance to help people access higher education. “If you go back a decade, our entire focus was completion,” she said. “The pendulum might have swung a little too far in that direction.”
Some of the policies and practices put into place with the best intentions need to be re-evaluated, Kress said.
For example, she said, to protect students from bad debt, colleges denied enrollment to students who couldn’t afford to pay. Instead, colleges should make sure students apply for financial aid and should connect them to payment plans, she said. “We need to use a scalpel instead of a buzz saw.”
Kress also said that part-time students need to be fully counted, and colleges need better access to meaningful data.
Both Ballinger and Lowery-Hart discovered that when colleges went to all-online learning, access to broadband internet was a big problem.
Baston called for policymakers to rethink “the hoops we’re asking people to jump through.” For example, “why is it necessary to have a 16-week term or require students to take a particular math class that most faculty couldn’t pass?”
Noting that community colleges prepare nurses and essential workers, he said, “we’ve got to say to policymakers the community college sector produces an important part of the wealth structure of this country. If you invest appropriately in our system, you are actually going to get a great return on your investment.”