The closure of an iconic campus like Harvard Yard attracts a lot of attention. But as the coronavirus spreads, it’s the closures of community colleges—institutions that have far less money but serve far more students—that worry many educators and researchers.
Below are four concerns academics have about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect community colleges. They include possible disruptions to student academic progress; delays in the training of health care workers; problems meeting students’ basic needs; and worries about a looming recession.
But it’s not all bad news at two-year colleges. A few leaders offered hope, too.
“Community colleges have proven themselves to be pretty resourceful in the past,” says Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
Disruptions to Student Progress
Even under normal circumstances, some students at community colleges and less-selective four-year institutions struggle to make progress toward earning a degree, says Christina Ciocca Eller, an assistant professor at Harvard who studies higher education. She thinks a major crisis like the coronavirus pandemic may force such students to make decisions that lead them away from higher education, at least for a while.
“Any researcher of higher ed will tell you uncertainty is like poison to students trying to get their degree,” Ciocca Eller says. “Now that something has come up that has potentially redirected their trajectory, it wouldn't be super surprising to me if there are much higher numbers of students, especially at two-year colleges, that decide to take breaks or stop out.”
By moving in-person classes online to comply with state health restrictions, community colleges may accidentally hinder student success, experts say. That’s because studies have shown that low-income students at community colleges may not succeed in online classes.
“I don’t want to say for sure this totally will not work, but it’s not the best way to educate some of these folks,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor and college affordability activist. However, the semester was already halfway through at many colleges and students had formed relationships with their professors face to face, which might help them persist in this situation.
Getting transfer credits approved may be another stumbling block during the pandemic. Although Brock thinks it’s a good idea for community colleges to discard letter grades in favor of a pass/fail system this semester, such a move might pose “potential challenges about the transferability for classes,” he says, since many four-year colleges have strict policies about transfer credits.
“Some states like Virginia are taking measures to make sure four-year universities accept those credits if the courses go to pass/fail,” Brock says.
Delays in Health Care Training
Community colleges offer many occupational training programs and play an especially large role in preparing students for health care careers. Brock worries that interruptions to in-person education at these institutions may slow down the training of future nurses, emergency medical technicians and respiratory therapists just as the country needs them most.
“Especially in a health crisis, this really matters,” Brock says. “You see students working with dummies, blood samples, doing all of this work that does require hands-on instruction. Probably some of that can be shifted online, but at the end of the day, students really need to be comfortable working with patients.”
Diminished Resources for Students and Institutions
Many community college students have to balance their schoolwork with employment and caregiving responsibilities, and some struggle to afford food and housing. The pandemic may make these burdens heavier, according to Mary Hovanec, history professor and faculty chair of an honors program at Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio.
“How do you complete coursework with no home computer or internet access?” Hovanec said in an email interview. “How do you focus on courses online when you have never taken an online course? How do you concentrate on coursework when your part-time job is gone and you are worried about paying your rent, purchasing food and, oh my, what if I get sick and I don't have health care coverage?”
And campus closures that shut down dining halls, computer labs and resource centers may make it harder for students to meet their basic needs.
“A lot of students, especially at two-year colleges, are really counting on being able to go to their college campuses to get a meal that’s available to them at a price they can afford, or financial aid dollars are paying for meals,” Ciocca Eller says.
In addition to revealing disparities among students, the crisis also highlights how much more nimbly private colleges can respond to hardship than can community colleges, Ciocca Eller says. That’s because of differences in resources, regulations and numbers of students.
“As much as I think the coronavirus is helping us to see inequalities within particular college campuses, I think it’s very powerful in showing us these in-between college campus and college sector differences. Maybe even more powerful,” Ciocca Eller says. “The rapidity of response is a potential point of inequity I saw.”
Getting Ready for Recession
With millions of Americans filing for unemployment insurance and the stock market sinking, some economists predict that a recession is on the horizon. That means community colleges may soon see enrollments swell, like they have during previous periods of hardship.
“Community colleges play an important role in a recession,” Brock says. “They are an obvious place for young people and adults to go to try to upskill, wait out things a bit until economic situations improve, and improve their prospects for finding work.”
That increased student demand, though, may strain community colleges and test their recent efforts to improve academic advising, cut down on extraneous credits earned and decrease time to degree.
“States and colleges may have less money to work with, and students may have less money,” Brock says. In that situation, “larger questions about efficiency and keeping students on track really matter for their welfare.”
Yet Brock thinks community colleges will be able to rise to the challenge of a recession, if it happens. Their teaching staffs—made up largely of adjunct faculty—tend to be flexible. And many have had success adapting their programs to meet the labor needs of local employers.
“I think they can be quickly mobilized,” Brock says. “One thing community colleges do better than the four-year sector is respond to these ebbs and flows in student enrollments because they're open-admission.”
'All Hands On Deck'
With all these concerns on top of a massive health scare, a pessimistic attitude among community college leaders would be understandable. But that’s not what Hovanec reports from her institution.
At Cuyahoga, staff members are working to balance safety with academic success. They’re calling and emailing their students to help them overcome the challenges created by shifting classes online. They’re trying to carry out the ideals of a community college.
“What has struck me today is the observation of my colleagues, faculty, staff and administrators who have exhibited real compassion and resiliency,” Hovanec said. “It is really all hands on deck at this time.”