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How to Grow Community College Enrollment, Featuring the League

Episode 41

January 12, 2021 33 minutes


Dr. Rufus Glasper, president and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, joins Dr. Christina Hubbard, EAB’s leading expert on community colleges, to discuss what ails that sector and what lies ahead.

They cite reasons for optimism that begin with a new presidential administration featuring noted community college professor and advocate, Dr. Jill Biden. The two touch on ways that faculty have struggled during the pandemic and the importance of ensuring faculty have a voice in charting a path forward.

Finally, they talk about the extent to which enrollment trends will be influenced by external factors, like the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and the economy, versus the need to innovate and deliver a more flexible and engaging educational experience (online or otherwise) that attracts new students.



0:00:12.7 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today’s episode explores innovation in the community college space, an especially important topic given that enrollment was down nearly 10% this fall. That surprised a lot of experts who were predicting the same kind of counter-cyclical bump that we saw during the great recession. Today, EAB’s resident community college expert Dr. Christina Hubbard is joined by the President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College, Dr. Rufus Glasper. They’ll talk about some of the reasons for the enrollment dip, but they’ll also cite reasons for optimism that begin with a new presidential administration featuring noted community college professor and advocate, Dr. Jill Biden. Thank you for joining us, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB.

0:01:07.6 Christina Hubbard: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Christina Hubbard, and I’m a senior director of strategic research here. My main areas of focus are academic advising and community colleges, so I’m thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Rufus Glasper, President and CEO of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Dr. Glasper, welcome to our podcast.

0:01:28.0 Rufus Glasper: Thank you very much, Christina. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

0:01:31.9 CH: So Dr. Glasper, can you start out by telling us a little bit more about the League for Innovation in the Community College, and maybe tell us how, if at all, your journey with Maricopa Community Colleges helped to inform the work that you’re doing as President and CEO of the League?

0:01:47.0 RG: The League for Innovation focuses on capitalizing innovation within community colleges. We’ve been around approximately 52 years plus. And over that period of time, we were created at a time when community colleges were considered to be a disruptive innovation. And we provide a platform for discussion for addressing issues of change. We do not focus on politics or political issues, we leave that to the American Association of Community Colleges or the Association of Community College Trustees. So we try to stay focused. A majority of our attendees to our conference are faculty members and those who might be at the VP department level, supervisor level and so forth. We connect and have memberships in the CEO’S name, but our role is to think about what works and what doesn’t work, and how we can help accelerate change and transform it with innovation.

0:02:53.7 CH: Yeah, and I think that’s actually a great segue to the elephant in the room, which is community college enrollment after the fall 2020 term. As I know you’re keenly aware, we saw enrollment fall off by about 10% in the community college sector across the full community college population, we lost over half a million students. And I know that there were many of us, including myself, that predicted that the pandemic and the recession might prompt an increase in community college enrollment similar to what we’ve seen in the past, and yet that didn’t come to fruition. So I’m curious what you think was one of the drivers behind the declines that we’ve seen in community college enrollment.

0:03:35.8 RG: Well, I will definitely look at the whole notion of the potential decline. You asked about my experience with Maricopa as well. I was at Maricopa for 30 years. And during that period of time, I spent about 17 years on the finance side of the house and 13 years as the chancellor for the system. We walked into this… We collectively, as educational institutions, walked into this pandemic thinking that it was very similar to the 2008 recession. And the 2008 recession gave us an opportunity to kind of see how community colleges could address a recession and what the impact on our student population might be. And we came out of that recession in the Maricopa system with our highest enrollment ever as we were looking at the upsurge. We went to… And by 2012, ’13, coming out of 2008 recession, we were at 275,000 students. So we thought that we understood the model. We flipped the model from more full-time to part-time faculty so we could serve more students, but it was at a cost, and that’s the cost of quality. With this one, we thought similar what happened. Especially with the pandemic, we felt that the students were closer to home, that the price point was better, and that we had the slot.

0:05:17.2 RG: What we didn’t think about or predict or had any kind of knowledge was the whole impact of the gig economy, those who are in restaurants, the fact that just having childcare is a major issue when you have a multi-family in one single household and you’re trying to conduct business in a virtual environment. And we knew about the digital divide, but we never realized the impact of that most of our students did not have a home computer. They come to our colleges and that’s where they spend a lot of their time and they can get the backup support. So as we thought about it, we just didn’t have any backups. And the lack of digital dexterity across the organization was pervasive. It is a lot better now, but I think that our students have been impacted by it, and our faculty members have been impacted as well. I believe that once we move out of this, all of our institutions will be focusing on professional development for increased digital dexterity, and the whole environment around hunger and housing are major impacts as well.

0:06:39.3 CH: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right about that. When we think about the students who attend community colleges, so often there’s already that precarious balance of managing their family responsibilities and their professional responsibilities, alongside their academic responsibilities. And one of the things that really came to the forefront here in the pandemic is that if you’re suddenly having to take on full-time childcare of your kids who are normally going off to school and trying to support them with their academic needs, there just wasn’t much capacity for a lot of our learners to really thrive within higher education themselves. I think the report that came out from the National Student Clearinghouse indicated that public two-year institutions lost about 36.5% of their enrollment among students who are over the age of 24. And so again, I think that that just reinforces that concept of how challenging it is for some of our students to succeed in the best of conditions. And then when you add some of these additional barriers that have been presented in the pandemic, it becomes really difficult.

0:07:47.2 RG: Christina, if I may, I just wanna bring in one other factor. The National Clearinghouse information shows that the number of freshmen dropped most dramatically at about 22.7%. And when you look at that impact, when we’re thinking about our pipeline are from those students who are graduating from high school and coming into our colleges. And when that line is cut off, then it’s the bloodline for survival in terms of those who may be matriculating into a two-year degree or onto a four-year degree as well. And we’re trying to investigate further to see what is happening. And many of our colleges within The League have reported that African American males are absent. That they just did not show up. So I think that there’s a lot of things that’s happening within this environment in terms of political polarization, issues of fear, family issues, and just trying to understand in a household where first-generation students are part of our major attendees, and when you have a family that does not have any educational history or the parents have not had access to education or been able to… If you’re the first in your family to have an education, how can you expect to be able to help your students at home, train them, help them when they don’t have the direct access to a teacher or to a faculty member?

0:09:27.4 CH: Exactly, exactly. I think that you’re spot on there. And circling back to one of the things that you were just talking about. We are all so keenly aware of the unequal impact that the pandemic has had on students and communities of color. Can you talk a bit about the work that you’re doing at The League to help community colleges address the root causes of things like food or housing insecurity, helping to overcome the digital divide that you mentioned before? How can we help our students of color to attend college and ultimately achieve their educational goals?

0:10:00.7 RG: Well, we’ve made the assumption… And to me, it’s a flawed assumption, that when you look at the public school system and 80% plus of those students on free and reduced meals. And then when they graduate and they come into our public community colleges, magically that need goes away. And it does not. And the work that Sara Goldrick-Rab has been doing over the past few years, where she has now been connecting with community colleges as well as four-year institutions, are indicating the growing need for awareness of hunger issues and housing issues within our student population. In 2019, we were successful at The League for Innovation in working with Walmart to promote an opportunity to look at rural community colleges. So they asked us if we would do a study and pick two rural colleges that were rural and distressed. And we’re currently now working with two community colleges, one in Texas and one in Kentucky, but they wanna focus on hunger. And we were able to do some face-to-face and start the project. And we visited the food pantries in each of those different communities, and we’re now trying to figure out ways to help them find solutions for the students and their families and support the ecosystem. And we think that that approach will need to be done in a way that they can think faster, quicker, better, and more inclusive as an ecosystem.

0:11:40.0 RG: And quite frankly, what we have found in this last nine months during the pandemic, is that we had to move that to a fully online platform because we couldn’t have access to it. We are now looking at the impact of the student not being able to come on campus to come to the pantry and all other kinds of access. So it’s an opportunity to think differently how we can support our students and where that assistance will come from.

0:12:10.3 CH: I think that’s a great point, Rufus. And shifting gears a little bit. I’m kind of curious as we start to look at the new year, with 2021, we have the advent of a new presidential administration, it’s looking increasingly likely that Congress is going to be held by the Democrats. We have the COVID vaccine rollout. There’s a lot that is happening that is a major change across what we saw in 2020. And I’m curious if you think that’s going to have some kind of an influence on community college enrollment, or whether that might be more dependent on localized factors like COVID caseloads in a given state, or the ability of an individual institution to deliver an engaging educational experience online or hybrid, face-to-face, however it might play out in 2021. How do we raise that appeal of community colleges to counter the competition that’s coming from our four-year institutions?

0:13:11.4 RG: Thank you for that question, I think it’s right on target. From a leadership perspective, I would hope that our community colleges and other educational institutions will be looking at it in two phases. In terms of the first phase, we need to get past the inauguration, and we need to see what may happen from the new administration. And because the new administration had very strong experience with the Obama Administration, we would like to think that there will be a great reception to community colleges. During the Obama Administration, we had our first under secretary of education that was a community college president. And if you look at the funding over the eight-year period, it was the highest level of funding that we had ever received in the history of funding community colleges. So you would like to think that there could be some form of continuation of the focus on supporting community colleges.

0:14:19.5 RG: But in the interim, we need to figure out by working with our other educational institutions within the environment, where the balance is between national expectations, local obligations in the whole pandemic. And I think the increase in communication that could actually occur from the federal level in terms of some national standards, and as national standards in terms of trying to address safety, address potential focus around funding in terms of stimulus dollars, what they can and cannot be used for, and when they can be expected to be received, and how you can use it. I think just clarification will help us administer better at the local level.

0:15:11.2 RG: But in the short term, I think the decisions will be made more on a local level in terms of what that local board and that local community feel that they can support in terms of safety first for students, trying to continue the education, and addressing the issues around funding as probably not an immediate concern, but it is a concern. Many of our institutions have found that not being in session, not having to deal with utility costs and others, that they have saved a number of dollars. And when you think about the dollars saved on infrastructure, can they be redirected in other ways to support some of the efforts we were talking about earlier in terms of access to technology and so forth?

0:16:04.3 RG: I brought up fear earlier, and I think administrators now were initially concerned about making wrong decisions during a major pandemic. I see that starting to calm down now because strategic plans are becoming more fluid planning, and more individuals are being engaged not just the C-suite of the organizations, but faculty members and others are understanding the expectations of their role as we move through the pandemic. And I also believe that there is an increased awareness that we did not have before. We thought the pandemic would be over in three to six months, and now it may move to 18 months. So as we’re doing that, we’re finding that that collective membrane is starting to spread among the conversations with our community colleges, our K-12 and our universities, and students are hearing a more consistent message. The more that we can ensure that that message is consistent, and that we’re not appearing to be in conflict with the institutional sectors of which service our ecosystem, our communities, then I think that we’ll see more confidence in the fact that I feel better sending my students to school if they get in contact with others that are within our system.

0:17:31.9 CH: Yeah, I think that does make a lot of sense. You had talked about the faculty a little bit there, and I just wanted to focus on the faculty for a few minutes and the changes that they’ve faced across the past year. Have faculty received the professional development that they need in order to succeed in this incredibly changing and evolving environment? In particular, I’m thinking about the fact that, to your point, many community colleges thought this was just going to be a few month thing, and here we are approaching one year, and it’s likely going to be an atypical course delivery method for a while going forward. So I’m curious what colleges might do differently to ensure faculty voices are heard as who’ll start to chart this path forward?

0:18:24.0 RG: When the pandemic started, all of us are aware in addition to our own communities and in our workforce. We move pretty rapidly within a three-week period or four-week period to try to move from face-to-face to online. And I would say at that particular point in time, the numbers that I heard is that many of our institutions, for the most part, were probably 20% to 30% prepared virtually. Every faculty member possibly had taught some kind of class online. But as a system, it was a total disruptive time because we could not move fast enough. We were trying to take face-to-face content and just provide it in a virtual environment. Some of it was successful. But many of our students, many of our faculties saying it was not a good experience.

0:19:25.0 RG: Over the summer, there’s been a lot of catch up. Professional development was growing rather rapidly within the community college space in terms of bringing faculty up to a certain level. The Centers for teaching and learning were immediately involved in educating faculty and staff. I think that has built the curve up now, so probably 70% have some level of training. But you’re also seeing faculty who are saying that, “It’s not working for me. I’m a face-to-face kind of person.” And the students are saying, “It’s not working for me, because I don’t get the same kind of exchange.” The faculty load, because we’re in a digital environment, in some cases had increased because students have 24/7 access via a computer, and they’re expecting responses from faculty at times when maybe their childcare load has declined in the late evenings and they can now reach the faculty member, but the faculty member may not be on time because they’ve been working all during the year.

0:20:34.6 RG: So there are different things that we’re trying to work out, I think it’s getting better. But faculty members are being invited to the table. And now that some of the immediacy has declined and there’s some sense of, “We need to establish a sense of inclusiveness, engagement and respect for the responsibilities that institutions have with their students and their faculty members,” and they’re being invited to the table. It’s not to say that they weren’t being invited before, but there was so much urgency that was going on that you couldn’t do it at a regular basis. I’ve talked to CEOs now that say that they have a regular monthly meeting. And it includes hundreds, if not thousands of people who can now access via some kind of digital medium, and they can reach to have conversations on a more regular basis. It’s helpful.

0:21:36.5 CH: I think that’s a great push. When we think about the connectivity, certainly it’s a challenge with everybody being remote, but there’s also an ease to some of these things. So elective meetings that you might not have participated in before because it would have been across campus requiring an additional 15 minutes to get over there, you get to the meeting, there’s all the chit-chat, and then there’s… You wrap up and it’s another 15 minutes back to your office, etcetera, when you can just tune in via Zoom and check in with what’s being said by the president of an institution, I think that it really does improve that connectivity across the faculty with senior administrators and the like. I think that engagement between students and their faculty members is also really important.

0:22:21.9 CH: I know I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m still an adjunct faculty member today, and I know that even my level of engagement with my students has changed across the pandemic. I’m a little bit more eager to try to connect with students through some forms of communication that I might not have used in the past. So I have students texting me much more frequently than they used to. I get on the phone if suddenly they disappear from our online classes, and I haven’t seen them in a couple of weeks, just to check in and see what’s going on, let them know that they can still catch up in my class. Because again, we don’t want the effect of the pandemic to hurt the students that we’re all here to serve. So it is a really interesting time for faculty members. And I’m curious if you have heard anything about the mental health of faculty members, if there’s the sense that of the pressures that are being put upon them throughout the pandemic, has there been any kind of focus on that with the CEOs that you’ve been connecting with?

0:23:30.3 RG: There has not been any direct responses relative to the mental health collectively in institutions. There are definitely instances where faculty members are responding differently, depending on their own health. The pandemic itself has profiled us in different categories, in different categories in terms of age, in terms of your health, and in terms of your ability to engage. Because if you’re in an at-risk group, and I’m a senior administrator, I’m in an at-risk group, so if I’m a senior faculty… And you have to remember that majority of our faculty have probably been with their institutions, in most cases, between 15 to 25 years. And so they fall into that category. And when you’re now talking about mandatory return to classes, face-to-face, and without the vaccine being in place, and with the case levels spiking, there’s a lot of concern. And there’s a lot of concern about moving into that space and then coming back to your own environment.

0:24:49.7 RG: And with many of us during the pandemic… My mother-in-law who’s 95-years-old, and coming back in this environment, was living with us. And these are just times that our training did not prepare us to try to think about how you can impact that. And people are making life choices. The life choices are family, there’s fear, and their health. And so I think this is a good time for us to reassess how we can support our faculty and our staff, and mental health will be one of those major components that, for community colleges, maybe we need to maintain a support from a local agency and have that as part of our faculty referral so that we can maintain that kind of sense of concern, that we are concerned about it, but we need to take care of business as well.

0:25:56.8 CH: Yeah, absolutely. So we have perhaps the most famous community college professor who will be entering the White House, alongside her husband. Dr. Jill Biden has been working for community colleges for years now, and I’m wondering if, in light of the current political environment, do you have any thoughts about what might happen with federal funding to expand things like Promise Programs or to loosen the eligibility for Pell Grants and things of that nature in order to make access to higher education more attainable for students?

0:26:35.9 RG: I am extremely pleased that we now have a vocal individual from Dr. Biden. And she was vocal, she had the first community college summit. And during that particular point and period of time, she put a spotlight on community colleges. Just this past summer, Opportunity America produced a report in June that said community colleges were the indispensable institutions. And as we think about that focal point, I think that we will get increased interest. College Promise Programs, but College Promise Programs for the most part, have always been about last dollar in terms of supporting. That last dollar needs to come from someone. And when you look at the funding that has the disinvestment in community colleges and in education in general, that last funding cannot be on the back of students, and with the neoliberalism thinking across the country, no property tax increase, no Federal increases and so forth.

0:27:44.2 RG: We need to figure out where those dollars are going to come from. And I believe that there is going to be more local investments. There’s going to be more donations that will support part of that last dollar. But it also has to come in support of the return on investment that community colleges can provide in terms of the workforce. We’ve always been about access, now there’s this major focus around retention, completion and jobs. And as we move through this pandemic, with the unemployment rates that are happening at this particular point, we’re concerned about transfer students being able to complete at a community college and move on to the universities. But we also need to be focused on micro-credentials, micro-pathways, getting people back to jobs, but trying to ensure that there is a connection point to a guided pathway that allows for students to come in and out of the workplace, be able to take care of their family, be able to upskill, reskill, and find a new skill in order to address the new environment.

0:28:58.9 RG: But be aware that we need to have badges, stackable credentials that we can use so that they can complete their two-year degree and or transfer to a four-year institution if that is their goal. And in this environment, I think that the history we had with the Trade Adjustment Grant funding in the early 2012s and so forth, have provided us with the pathway. We can have an energy employee coming out of high school, a pole climber in an energy company come in and out of the workplace in eight steps and have an associate degree and transfer to a university into an engineering program. Those programs existed over the last 10 years. We need to replicate and scale those type of programs and demonstrate that you don’t have to sacrifice your family in order to have a two-year or four-year degree, but we need to have companies that are willing to accept us, the crediting agencies and others. But we’re excited about Dr. Biden and the focus, and we’re trying to look at the collectivity around “Who’s going to fund it?” There’s always going to be a funding issue.

0:30:20.1 CH: I could talk to you for hours, Rufus. Thank you so much for sharing these incredible insights about what’s happening within the community college sector. I think that’s about all the time we have for today’s episode, but I am really excited about all of the collaboration and coordination that we have coming up between The League and EAB across the upcoming year. I know I’ll be joining you at your conference in just a couple of months in the first week of March. And then shortly after that, we’ll be collaborating on a presidential symposium, as well as a series of webinars across the year. So stay tuned. Looking forward to having those opportunities to engage with The League. And again, thank you so much for your time today.

0:31:01.7 RG: Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate the work that EAB is providing us in the areas of thought leadership. After we look at the experiences of four-year institutions, and we relate those to two-year institutions, majority of our students at some point in time say that they have a goal to transfer to four-year institutions. These kinds of environments make it somewhat difficult. However, if we can keep that particular portion of their dream alive by restructuring the whole notion of stackable credentials, transfer programs, the fluidity of moving from our two-year to four-year and help students with their own choices, then I think we can address the issues. And it’s going to be an exciting time. It’ll be a little difficult for a few months, maybe about a year, but we have to keep the light in front of us, we need to keep moving forward, and remember that education is a critical infrastructure. Thank you for the opportunity today.

0:32:07.8 CH: Thank you again for joining us.

0:32:16.1 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. On our next episode, EAB’s Kaitlyn Maloney and Jackson Nell will examine the new federal spending bill, what it means for higher ed, and how this new stimulus package will differ from the CARES Act. Until then, thank you for joining us on Office Hours with EAB.


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