The pandemic has exposed some gaps in the supports that community colleges provide to students, but it also has led to creative problem-solving.
The Covid health crisis has “amplified the things we’ve been missing,” said Paula Pando, president of Reynolds Community College in Virginia.
Pando was among four community college presidents discussing changes they’ve made at their institutions to ensure they are supporting all students’ needs. The discussion took place Wednesday during the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual Workforce Development Institute.
Changing the hierarchy
“We quickly realized that while all of us were in the same storm, we were absolutely not weathering that storm in the same boat,” Pando said. “Some of us were in yachts. Some of us were in more modest boats…some were in dinghies.” And some, she said, weren’t in a boat at all.
“We started to see students disappear. I kept thinking, ‘Our students are drowning,’” she added.
Though colleges provided federal CARES Act funding to students, not every student qualified, and there were still gaps for many.
Even with scholarships and free tuition programs, “the cost of living is not included,” Pando said.
How has the college been able to address the needs of all students quickly? By throwing out the “playbook of the past” and specifically upending the institutional hierarchy, she said. Reynolds moved to networks of cross-functional teams to solve problems rather than using traditional committees.
“We have problems in front of us, we have talent here, unleash their power,” she said.
Students are consuming higher education differently, and if institutions don’t change, they’ll be irrelevant, Pando warned.
Westchester Community College (WCC) in New York has reacted in a similar way.
“Shared governance is alive and well at Westchester Community College, but we’re working together in an integrated fashion,” said WCC President Belinda Miles.
That’s meant breaking down silos and increasing communication and transparency. The career and technical education programs, for instance, were fairly separate from other parts of the institution, but now “we’ve had to learn to work together in a more connected way,” Miles said. “Students aren’t moving in a linear fashion toward their career goals.”
Increased communication has been vital at Michigan’s Muskegon Community College (MCC), too. At the onset of the pandemic, meetings that may have taken place monthly were taking place daily. President Dale Nesbary was in constant communication with union officials, board members, and staff and faculty.
“I was communicating with folks who could make this process or break it,” Nesbary said.
Listening to their customers
As students’ and employers’ needs change, Miles said colleges need to “retool what we’re offering.”
Columbia-Greene Community College (CGCC) in New York started investigating micro-credentials because people wanted to get skills and certificates in a shorter amount of time, said President Carlee Drummer. “It became clear we needed to ramp up efforts.”
CGCC will offer five or six new micro-credentials in the fall.
In Michigan, statewide scholarship programs started during the pandemic are helping people return to college so they can get back to work. The Futures for Frontliners program targets those without college degrees who worked in essential industries during the state’s Covid shutdown. About 117,000 Michigan residents registered for the program – 2,500 of whom would attend MCC.
Another statewide program helps students over age 25 who are capable of work and want to work. They can receive a full scholarship to a community college.
“We have been able to do some things that, without the pandemic, ordinarily people who wouldn’t have walked in our doors are able to do so now,” Nesbary said.
For Pando, this is the time to reach out to employers and tell the community college story – with data.
“There is an opportunity divide,” she said. On one side, there are thousands of unemployed or underemployed people, and on the other side are employers who don’t have enough skilled workers. Formalizing partnerships can bridge that divide.
Workforce programs are expensive to run and, “based on funding models, we cannot do it alone,” Pando added.
Another consideration during the pandemic is how to best serve students with disabilities.
At CGCC, which has about 1,200 credit students, only a handful of faculty had experience with remote teaching, noted Drummer. As faculty worked with IT to retrofit their courses quickly to an online environment, she learned that the pivot to online learning in the spring would place students with disabilities at a disadvantage.
The college extended spring break by a week to investigate tools needed to ensure students with disabilities could transition to online learning. Not only did the college invest in software, but it also provided training for faculty and has done more outreach so students know they can request accommodations.
“Covid-19 was a call-to-action to change infrastructure,” Drummer said. “We need to empower instructors to develop courses with accessibility at the forefront.”
In March, CGCC will hold a virtual event with college-bound high school students who have disabilities to prepare them for the college environment.
The college also confronted the technology gap by working with internet providers to open outdoor hotspots where students can access wi-fi. They launched a fundraising campaign and used CARES Act funding to also help address technology needs.
“I’m proud of the work we’re doing to dismantle barriers,” Drummer said. “The new standards we adopted will serve us well as we continue to serve online courses in the post-pandemic world.”
Supporting the community
The colleges also are supporting their whole community in another way. While students remain off-campus, their facilities are used to help address the pandemic.
MCC’s Health & Wellness Center, which opened in 2018, became a pop-up hospital to help with the overflow of Covid patients. In February, it will serve as a vaccination site, as will CGCC’s gymnasium.
And WCC helped to support nurses visiting nursing homes to do Covid testing. They stopped by the college to get the testing kits they needed.