Higher education enrollments fell overall to new lows during the spring 2021 semester, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In just one year, the U.S. experienced a decline of 3.5 percent, or 603,000 students, from the previous year, seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.
Perhaps the hardest hit sector in higher education, community colleges have the steepest road toward recovery in closing their enrollment, persistence, retention, and completion gaps—especially among students of color and low-income students. According to a recent article published by the American Association of Community Colleges, community college persistence rates dropped 3.5 percentage points to 58.5 percent—the largest decline in all institution sectors. Retention rates also declined the most in the community college sector, down 2.1 percentage points to 51.6 percent. And community college enrollment dropped the most from low-income high schools.
In reflection of these realities for our nation’s community colleges, now is the time to integrate new ideas, new technologies, new mindsets, and a new commitment toward the removal of every barrier to student success. The next generation of community college presidents—myself included—must ensure we are empowering our faculty and staff to take our institutions to new heights and realize the full potential of our respective institutional missions and visions for our students.
Community college educators stand on the front lines of our communities, doing work that helps to eliminate poverty and realize an equitable future. However, without sufficient institutional resources and supports, our front lines will essentially succumb to the firing line.
Below are three key points for community colleges to consider beyond the pandemic:
Renewed Commitment to Technology Integrations
The past 18 months brought an onslaught of efforts from community colleges to quickly develop and roll out continuity-of-service plans. While some institutions were better resourced and prepared than others, online education and support services became the norm. During this time, several discoveries were made within the academy. For one, institutions quickly learned which faculty and staff members lacked the skill sets to serve students remotely. In addition, the times exposed how many students were ill-prepared to learn through this medium.
As our institutions work aggressively to recover from the pandemic, technology integrations ought to be at the forefront of all strategic plans moving forward. Using comprehensive data, institutions should examine how effective online education and student support services have been and can be toward increased efficiencies and effectiveness in student success. Furthermore, multiple modalities of learning will prove essential in meeting the educational demands of today’s and tomorrow’s students.
Face-to-face instruction and supports will always have their place. However, the future of society, industry, and globalization depends on innovative and disruptive technologies. Community colleges must envision educational technology in the same manner.
Renewed Commitment to Telework and Alternative Work Scheduling
Community colleges, in an effort to ensure relevance in the evolving workforce and educational market, must embrace telecommuting and alternative work scheduling beyond the pandemic. Why? Because remote learning has changed student expectations toward learning and accessibility, and faculty and staff thoughts toward the delivery of quality instruction and service remotely have been affected as well. In addition, with the progression of coronavirus variants and the various demands on home life, more faculty and staff are likely to request to serve students away from campus.
Now, the real question is how each community college should institute telework and alternative work scheduling practices and policies appropriately. Both accommodations are powerful tools available to the institution. Although they require a great deal of responsibility in instituting or continuing, these accommodations can improve an institution’s ability to serve students creatively and continuously.
The key here is strategy and intentionality. Each institution must strategize its pathway toward integration and embrace fully the urgency at hand to ensure its workforce and educational marketplace stays relevant. While there will be critics, doubters, and outright barriers to implementation, each community college must chart its course toward implementation in alignment with the institutional mission.
One step could certainly be to create a task force at your institution—consisting of faculty and staff from human resources, information technology, and any additional key areas—to select tech tools to aid in personnel and workflow accountability. New policies and procedures would also need to be established.
Commitment to the Rebound of Our Communities and Industry
Interestingly, society has continued to question the purpose of higher education. As time has progressed, industry has positioned itself to deliver education in a matter that is more efficient and effective to business needs. This is not to imply that higher education is on the road to extinction. However, the institution as we know it has lost its once-dominant foothold.
There is no sector within higher education better prepared to quickly create programs based on industry and community needs than community colleges. The relevance of our sector depends on our ability to pivot quickly and act with appropriate urgency. By infusing more technology in the student experience and instituting workplace innovations beyond the pandemic, community colleges are taking the appropriate steps to secure and grow their market share in the ever-more-competitive educational and industrial marketplace.