June 20, 2022
Covid-19 has affected all sectors of higher education, but none more than community colleges. The socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic landed most heavily on the lower-income families and communities of color that the institutions often serve, leading to some colleges’ losing as much as a quarter of their enrollments between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. Community-college leaders found that students who attempted to continue their studies remotely often didn’t have the technology to do so, or were dealing with their own children’s learning, lost jobs, sick family members, and other stresses that put education on the back burner. Coming at the end of nearly a decade of gradual enrollment decline for many community colleges, this crisis has summoned an existential moment for two-year institutions.
But, as they say, never let a crisis go to waste. Covid-19 has galvanized community colleges and their leaders, presenting them with huge challenges that, in some cases, bear on their flip sides enormous opportunities. The sudden pivot to online education spurred by the pandemic, for one example, charts a clear future in which community colleges can play a larger role online. “Higher education believed for a long time in the mythologies of what can be done and what can’t be done,” says Michael A. Baston, president of Rockland Community College, in Suffern, N.Y., north of New York City. “There were a lot of myths of what we can’t do that were broken, in part, by Covid.”
What do community colleges need to do to emerge from the pandemic strong, maybe stronger than ever? Their leaders may have to rethink traditional linchpins such as enrollment management, equity, and student support. They’ll have to reimagine the way their institutions approach ensuring student success, serving adult students, laying out the academic year, and how they approach noncredit programs and transfer. And they’ll have to examine two of the most important factors in a college’s success: resources and leadership.
The specific answers will vary depending on their regions, whom they serve, and other individual factors. But there’s little question that the colleges will have to be more proactive, flexible, and student-focused than ever — even as the types of student they focus on most may need to change.