Community College Month: Now is the time to reconnect with our students

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It is no secret that community colleges suffered during the pandemic.

Significant drops in enrollment occurred across the country during the past two years. But rather than focus on numbers, we must look at the reasons for these drops. Our students struggled during Covid-19. Often faced with job losses or reductions in hours worked, they simply did not have the resources to either start college or continue their education. For too many students, they didn’t even have the basic technology necessary to complete remote coursework nor the funding to acquire it.

Adult students and parents also focused on helping their own children with remote learning, leaving little time for their own education. Mental health struggles also increased, as isolation and tumultuous world events took their toll on even the strongest of individuals.

These losses are significant, and we now must do the hard work to reconnect with these students. This is a critical time in our economy, as so many community college students are trained to enter the workforce directly after earning a degree or certificate. With the increase in retirements and changes in the workplace, the need for a skilled and educated workforce is greater than ever.

Myriad benefits

One current debate is whether higher education is necessary or whether training programs are a better option, saving both time and money.

My reply is that higher education provides benefits far beyond the skills being taught, and community colleges serve a population that has struggled the most during the pandemic. They need us more than ever before, and it is our job as community college leaders to make sure they have clear access to our offerings. 

As the nation celebrates Community College Month in April, remember the significant role that community colleges play as engines of recovery. Our workforce training and education programs are designed to bridge local labor gaps, and we can quickly create new programs that respond to needs in the workplace. 

The beauty about a community college is the access it provides to all populations. Reasonable tuition rates and access to a local institution provide a beacon of hope to students who cannot afford to go elsewhere or travel too far from home.

Community support

We did learn from the pandemic that alternative learning formats work, and schools are now armed with additional tools that provide even greater flexibility regarding delivery of curriculum and support services.

But we cannot do this alone. The “community” in “community college” is a two-way street. We are here to serve the community and must collaborate with them in ways that benefit students who cannot do it alone.

For example, I challenge businesses to consider partnering with a community college. This can be through serving on program advisory boards, volunteering for mentoring opportunities, participating in job fairs and providing job shadowing experiences. A donation of equipment can provide students with state-of-the-art training equipment that keeps their skills current with workforce trends.

Consider partnering with a community college foundation to provide funding for student scholarships that often are make-or-break opportunities for college access.

Serving one and all

As a proud community college graduate, I cannot explain how much my time at College of DuPage (Illinois) did for me. I still remember my professors and the staff who helped me at a crucial time in my life as I built an academic foundation for my future success.

Now, as the board of trustees chair at my alma mater, I am so proud to provide leadership at a school that will help thousands of students like myself. Community colleges can and will provide students with the framework for successful careers. We can reach populations that otherwise could not attend college.

Together, we can erase the losses of the pandemic and demonstrate the great importance of community colleges within the higher education landscape. It is time to be creative and ensure that future generations can fulfill their educational and career goals. 

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Maureen Dunne chairs the board of trustees at College of DuPage in Illinois, her alma mater. Dunne obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Chicago, a master’s from the London School of Economics and a doctorate in cognitive sciences from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. In addition to her academic accomplishments, Dunne has co-founded, led and advised venture-backed technology companies and is the co-founder and managing partner of the first social impact investment association focused on neurodiversity.