A time to reimagine community colleges

By Ellie Ashford

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 new realities during a panel discussion last week 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.

Many worries

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.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Ellie Ashford

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.