Community colleges on the front lines

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Among all higher education institutions, community colleges are on the front lines this year, as they serve the most disadvantaged students hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis.

College leaders talked about those challenges and how they’re also focusing on equity during a webinar Thursday titled “Community Colleges Leading the Way,” hosted by the Center for American Progress.

In the face of all the pandemic-related challenges, the brutal murders of people of color and the unrest that followed, “we’re seeing an enormous resiliency in our students and our faculty,” said California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley.

Before the pandemic, Harper College in Illinois was already focusing on equity and established the position of vice president for equity and inclusion, said President Avis Proctor. She is setting up a social justice task force this fall.

After the murder of George Floyd, Proctor met with the Black Student Union to “hear their stories and let them know we’re committed to actions, not just talk.”

“Our goal is to remove barriers to student success,” she said. In support of that goal, the college provided financial support to students who were close to completion but needed some help to get to the finish line.

For Diné College in the Navajo Nation, the pandemic forced college leaders to “redefine what equity means in Indian country,” said President Charles Roessel. “The need is so great; we don’t even know the totality of the need. You’re not going to make any great changes if you’re just working around the edges.”

According to Roussel, 30 percent of the people in the Navajo Nation do not have running water, and only 8.3 percent have some postsecondary education.

Plans for fall

“The one thing we know for sure – there is no bulletproof plan for opening in the fall,” Oakley said. “The most certain thing we can do is communicate to students that we’re going to be as remote as possible.”

Harper College will be primarily online this fall. The college’s reopening plan was worked out with input from six unions, Proctor said. Class sizes will be limited to 10 people, even though the state guidelines allow more.

Harper quickly established a program this summer on contact tracing so students can get jobs with the public health department tracking down COVID patients’ contacts.

Diné College is still considering whether to remain all virtual for fall, Roessel said. A majority of students indicated last spring that they want to come back in person, and now most prefer online classes. Health and safety are critical for a college where the average age of faculty is 65.

And when students are traveling 60 or 100 miles to campus, it doesn’t make sense to come for one class, he said.

Related article: Tribal colleges stay strong but face challenges

Lack of broadband is a big problem for Diné students. “We have students who have to hike half a mile up a hill just to get a signal to take a class,” Roessel said. He directed staff to drive around and check how many bars they had on their phones at different locations.

“We have to start looking at education without boundaries,” he said. He is planning to create learning centers in different areas of the reservation that K-12 and university students can use, as well as students at the community college.

The next stimulus

Diné College provided $700 to full-time students and $475 to part-time students through its allotment from the CARES Act. The college used other funds for the 200 students who didn’t qualify for CARES money.

One challenge at Diné is that many students don’t have bank accounts. So instead of direct deposit, students waited in their cars for hours in long lines to pick up their checks.

A priority for Roessel now is to convince Congress to provide the $2 million a year for operations and maintenance that was promised but not funded.

Harper College provided from its own funds thousands of dollars to students who didn’t qualify for CARES funding and needed money for rent, transportation, food and personal supplies.

When asked about the next stimulus legislation, Proctor said she would like to see a new program modeled on the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program, an idea that has been floated by lawmakers and supported by the American Association of Commun Colleges. That would recognize the important role community colleges play in “retooling our nation’s workers.”

Related article: October 8 is the application deadline for the $40M Strengthening Community College Training Grants program.

Going forward, the college presidents are urging lawmakers to ensure any new CARES funding is based on headcount, rather than full-time equivalent students. That’s critical for community colleges, where most students are part-time.

“We are trying to support people. We are focused on equity, we have to fund the needs of a whole student,” Oakley said. “There is no such thing as part-time need.”

For the next stimulus, Oakley would like to see “a true commitment to the most vulnerable students in America – to give them an opportunity to complete their education and participate in the economy.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.