As the year draws to a close, many of us are looking eagerly—if not desperately—toward 2021 and a chance to put some of the experiences of the past year behind us. But as we do so, it's imperative that we take stock of what we learned in 2020 and continue the pandemic-invigorated work of ensuring that our institutions, practices, and policies meet the needs of current and future students. On the Community College Executive Forum, we’ve launched our Students of the Pandemic research to help partners do just that.
Across the fall, we held a series of web conferences detailing some of our early findings including what the double-digit drop in enrollments means for the future of access, and what colleges need to prioritize to meet the rapidly escalating mental health crisis.
These, and many of the other challenges that students are facing are going to have significant consequences for years to come. So, as we turn our eyes towards 2021, here are four things community college leaders must keep top-of-mind to serve students:
1. Their challenges will outlast the virus threat. Your response should too
The challenges that so many of our current and prospective students are facing—from extreme economic insecurity, to increasing mental health concerns, to an avalanche of learning loss—are not going to be resolved by a vaccine. They also reflect a serious threat to the college access pipeline, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. The forthcoming end to various pandemic relief programs including unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums, and student loan forbearance will result in an avalanche of economic burdens that largely affects those already suffering disproportionately from the public health and financial toll of the pandemic. Even if the federal government is able to pass some sort of stimulus reform, economists expect that the economic impacts of the pandemic and the recession will last for several years especially for low-income communities.
While this leaves open the possibility of a future countercyclical bump in enrollments from adults who decide to upskill to improve their employment prospects, it also increases the likelihood that for many of our prospective students, the opportunity cost of higher education will remain too high. Therefore, community colleges must invest now to create a strategic plan for allocating critical resources to the students who are most in need, ensuring that they have flexible options, and continuing to provide accessible learning on- and off-ramps to their institutions. This will prevent students from feeling forced to make a false choice between work and school, allowing them access to higher education while managing their personal and professional responsibilities.
2. Off-campus partnerships are the key to navigating the ballooning mental health crisis
From kindergarteners to senior citizens, the past nine months have seen an alarming increase in reported mental health concerns. While much of these increases can be attributed to the isolation and anxiety surrounding the pandemic, we know that they are likely to persist beyond the threat of a viral outbreak. What this means is that across the coming months and even years, students are going to be coming to higher ed with a host of significant mental health challenges, exacerbating the already growing mental health crisis on college campuses.
Now more than ever, community colleges must leverage and scale up their existing partnerships with local health care providers, community-based organizations, and government agencies to make sure that they can help direct students to the appropriate services and resources to meet their needs.
3. 2020 will change what students expect from higher ed
While the headlines over the past year around students’ experiences and perceptions of higher have largely centered on their less-than-stellar reviews of remote learning, and their overarching desire to return to “normal,” there have also been important underlying signals that suggest that students’ expectations of higher ed are likely to shift as a result of the pandemic. For one, while a majority may prefer face-to-face instruction on the whole, they are likely going to expect that the flexibility—in modality, scheduling, and timing—available to them during the pandemic will become the norm. This may include everything from the ability to access in-person materials and lectures online when they’re not able to make it to campus or having a greater number of remote and hybrid learning options than were available pre-pandemic. In fact, over two-thirds of current college students want their courses to include some degree of online learning post-COVID.
This means that community colleges—and especially faculty—must avoid the temptation of viewing widespread remote instruction as an artifact of the pandemic, and instead double-down on investments to infrastructure, professional development, and virtual support services necessary to continue to expand accessible and effective online education.
4. Prospective students will be harder to find, and require a more proactive recruiting approach
Nearly all of the leading indicators of college-going behaviors are down over the past several months, including FAFSA completion, guidance counselor time spent on college advising, and visits to higher ed search sites. These cracks in the college access pipeline threaten not only the long-term outcomes of our prospective students, but also reflect a threat to the sustainability of two-year institutions. As four-year universities struggle to meet their rosters, they will change their strategies to fit the times. Institutions that have traditionally relied on names generated by college prep tests like the SAT and ACT are now searching for new and creative ways to expand their outreach to high school populations and will increasingly target students who typically would enroll at community colleges.
For community colleges—which have historically developed strong relationships with their local high schools and guidance counselors—it's critical to focus on broadening access to their institutions and ensuring that all local high school students are aware of the opportunities available to them within their community. Recently we profiled several institutions who have found ways to expand their college access pipeline through practices like automatic admissions and mandatory dual enrollment, which we anticipate becoming increasingly important for community colleges—and their local high schools—to ensure that regional access to higher ed doesn’t falter.
It’s been a rough start to a new decade. Everyone in higher ed is more than ready for the promise offered by a new year. But as we eagerly await a return to the normal world of bustling, busy, student-filled campuses, let’s be sure to incorporate what has changed in 2020. Our students’ needs have changed, and our student support must evolve now, too.
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