Transforming 2020’s disruptions into 2021’s reforms

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For the last nine months of 2020, community college administrators, faculty and staff have been forced by multiple waves of disruptions to rapidly adapt in many new ways. Beyond the massive faculty efforts to transition classes to virtual delivery, nearly every institutional department has made extensive changes, including financial aid, student advising, career services, IT, HR, facilities management, marketing and communications, and finance.

Bill Browning and Chad Hoggan

These adaptations would have been difficult enough, but they have been especially daunting because community college professionals already had full workloads before adding these changes on top of them. Unfortunately, 2020’s sudden disruptions didn’t allow us to pause our regular commitments or quickly add new resources. Further, making such significant changes almost always requires learning and change at a deep, fundamental level; a form of learning described as transformational.

This is precisely the point we make in our recent book, Transformational Learning in Community Colleges, when we explain why so many historically underserved students struggle. In essence, they are required to make fundamental adjustments necessary to adapt to the foreign environment of higher education, while at the same time trying to do all the work we expect of them in classrooms on top of continued responsibilities with their home and work lives. This fall, as evidenced by a shockingly large decline in community college student enrollment, many students struggled to manage the disruptive effects of the pandemic, financial stress due to layoffs or lost work hours, or other stressors, delaying college for millions of workers who will need new skills more than ever to launch post-recession careers.  

For students and college professionals alike, the transformational learning process is triggered by a disorienting dilemma – such as the disruptive experiences and dramatically changed environments encountered this year – that we cannot ignore and cannot effectively resolve without changing previous taken-for-granted perspectives and beliefs. Such disorientating experiences are often accompanied by tumultuous feelings of “confusion, dissonance, angst, and/or discomfort” that many people prefer to resolve by returning to the comfort of familiar practices, a reaction that has often stymied past college reform efforts. 

However, disorienting dilemmas are also catalysts that can begin an interior process to shift some traditionally held perspectives in ways that lead us to see ourselves and our world differently than we did before. When colleagues join together in a deeper learning journey to explore changes, the ripple effect of similar perspective shifts among peers can shift organizational cultures enough to accelerate and sustain genuinely transformational reforms. While questioning previous taken-for-granted assumptions is usually experienced as a painful process, ironically this process may be a bit less painful now because we’ve already been forced by so many disruptions to make changes that were unthinkable in ordinary times. 

Here are two examples of how changes already underway at some colleges in 2020 invite a deeper questioning process that can lead to transformational reforms: 

Placement testing: The closure of campus testing centers has led some colleges to temporarily waive requirements for new students to take English and math placement tests, which in some colleges had historically resulted in nearly 50% of students being placed in developmental education. Can one standardized test really tell us if students are college-ready, regardless of whether their goal is to transfer to an elite university or study to become an auto technician? And anyway, is a bad test score (which is interpreted by many prospective students as the college telling them that they don’t belong) a good way to begin a relationship? How might we better support students in different ways that save them time and money compared to sequential developmental courses? 

The temporary placement test waiver creates an opportunity to observe results, learn from students’ experiences and explore new options. New practices emerging from this experiment can become a powerful magnet to attract and enroll more students while also addressing historic inequities.

New and more integrated partnerships: Some colleges have sought new partnerships to address needs that became more visible during the crises of 2020. For example, some colleges have partnered in new ways with regional food banks to support hungry students and their families. Others have fast-tracked plans to draw upon SNAP (e.g., food stamp program) employment and training partnerships to reimburse 50% of the college’s cost of supporting an increasing number of students from households receiving SNAP benefits.

Beyond these examples, there are many natural allies that offer complementary support programs and services, such as ABE and GED programs, nonprofit job training providers, housing support programs and more. How do you effectively weave resources together with such partners to enroll and support vulnerable college students? If students can’t come to your campus or are afraid to, in what ways can you bring college access to partner locations (either virtually or in-person)? The central case study in our book is an example in which the college “co-enrolled” participants in a nearby nonprofit job training program so that they could earn initial college credits along with job skills. 

Community colleges have been compelled to make big changes in 2020. Some of these changes could lead to breakthrough reforms that we would not have considered before our worlds were rocked. Transformational learning can provide a useful framework and roadmap for college staff undergoing big changes in their jobs and departments, and empowers them to navigate their own journeys of deep personal change during this tumultuous time. Crises like what we experienced in 2020 have the potential to bring out the best in us in 2021, but only if we open our eyes and minds to see and explore new possibilities rather than hope for a return to 2019. 

Bill Browning is an independent consultant with a 30-year career combining management roles in corporate training, a community-based nonprofit, community college and workforce development policy and leadership training. Chad Hoggan is an associate professor of adult, workforce and continuing professional education in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University. They are the authors of Transformational Learning in Community Colleges: Charting a Course for Academic and Personal Success (Harvard Education Press, 2019).