Valerie Roberson is the president of Roxbury Community College, in Massachusetts.
While the transition from in-person to remote learning has been difficult for all institutions of higher learning, it has been particularly difficult for community colleges, which are used to accomplishing more with less and keeping costs as low as possible for their students.
Community colleges serve students who may not have access to laptops, tablets and high-speed internet. More than 80% of students at Roxbury Community College (RCC) are eligible to receive Pell Grants. Many of them are still becoming familiar with web-based technology. Several face the additional challenges of juggling their schoolwork with caring for children at home as well as the financial pressures caused by COVID-19.
Faculty members are also adjusting to this unprecedented situation, which has required many of them to adapt to new technology and learn how to operate web-based collaboration tools they have never used before. COVID-19 has presented a steep learning curve for all of us.
Community colleges and other institutes of higher learning can not only survive this crisis but can find themselves in an even stronger position than before by implementing the following ideas.
Make health the top priority. Take whatever steps are necessary to make sure your campus is a safe place for your students and staff to learn and work. Err on the side of being cautious, even if it means extending the period when remote learning is necessary.
Keep the focus on the students. Keep your students at the forefront of every decision that you make. Affordability is the cornerstone of equal access. Keep overhead and fees low to make a college education affordable for as many students as possible regardless of their income level. Don't pass expenses on to students. Designate a significant portion of federal funds to help them.
Find ways to provide student support that addresses nonacademic needs that can be a barrier to completion, such as food insecurity and social-emotional support. Offer options including refunds to students who need to postpone their education due to economic hardship caused by COVID-19.
Communicate with your community early and often. Uncertainty breeds mistrust and fear. Be transparent about all decisions and developments. Keep your website updated, so anyone can easily find the information they need. In addition, reach out to your students in the places where they get their information, including email, Facebook and Instagram.
Communication also needs to be a two-way street. Ask your students for their feedback and set up mechanisms where they can be heard. All community colleges are required to survey their students; work with your colleagues in institutional relations to develop and distribute surveys that collect student input on decisions related to commencement, re-opening campus facilities and more.
Remote learning is a process. Don't assume the need for technical support and training ended the moment the first remote class went online. Create an environment where both staff and students feel comfortable asking technical questions and provide them with the resources they need to enhance their online skills moving forward. Exploring new and better ways to use remote learning may make community college classes accessible to even more students in the future. Mastering this new realm of higher education will be an asset to community colleges going forward.
Provide industry-ready skills that translate into jobs. Create the shortest path possible for your students between the classroom and the workplace. Work with local corporate partners to create academic programming that addresses their needs in growth areas such as smart building technology, health sciences and biotechnology. Offer degrees and short-term training programs that lead to certifications that qualify people for jobs and promotions. Make sure all your classes build workforce readiness skills employers are looking for, such as communication, problem solving and teamwork.
Offer coursework that is honored by other schools. Ensure that all credits from community college classes are transferable to four-year programs at other higher learning institutions for students who chose to pursue bachelor's degrees.
The COVID-19 crisis is going to have long-term implications for higher education. The economic challenges we are facing have many students rethinking their educational strategy. They will be looking to community colleges to gain the knowledge and skills they need faster and for a lower cost. The work we do now will allow us to meet this challenge in the future.