The pandemic has thrown up more obstacles for students trying to stay on track toward a credential, and that has been particularly true for students at community colleges and other public colleges.
That was the message by state higher ed leaders who gathered this summer at the Reagan Institute Summit on Education in Washington, D.C.
The top problems they identified were decreased student enrollment at colleges and insufficient access to and understanding of digital technology among students and instructors. Leaders noted that although these aren’t totally new concerns, the health crisis exacerbated them—as did, they argued, years of weak state funding for higher education.
One key issue that emerged was an ongoing digital divide. After all, remote learning that relies on video calls and emails doesn’t work well for students who don’t have internet access. That divide affected a significant share of college students in West Virginia, a state where officials say nearly 40 percent of rural residents don’t have broadband. So the state improvised an internet solution through the Kids Connect program, which created more than 1,000 wireless hotspots in parking lots at schools, libraries and parks.
Longer term, state leaders are trying to improve internet infrastructure across the state, said Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
“How do we make sure that our students have access in this changing world?” she asked. “If we are going to change to a hybrid workforce or a hybrid education system, which it looks like we might, how do we do that if 40 percent of people don’t have access to broadband?”
Yet just because people can access technology doesn’t mean they know how to use it effectively for teaching and learning. That was a problem identified in Kentucky, prompting the state to invest in technology training and professional development for professors, said Aaron Thompson, president at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
“You not only had to do ‘stuff’ online—you had to be somewhat digitally literate to do it, and that’s including the faculty,” Thompson said. “We took our money, and we helped faculty to get up to an engagement process, not just delivering the academics.”
Proactively Supporting Students
The pandemic disrupted the old assumption that if colleges offer support services, students who need them will manage to find them on their own. Now, colleges are experimenting with ways to take the initiative to reach out to students who may need guidance or help.
In Louisiana during the pandemic, colleges went “old school” by creating phone banks, through which alumni, faculty and staff called students and asked them, “How are you doing and what can we do to help?” explained Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education. “Asking those important questions is really critical for students to support them.”
In West Virginia, community colleges have hired Temporary Assistance for Needy Families coordinators whose job it is to help students who are single women raising children learn how to navigate government resources and balance all their responsibilities with their studies. The goal is to prevent these students from stopping out, according to Tucker.
These kinds of programs aim to communicate to students that it’s normal and beneficial to seek support when they need it, Reed said.
“That’s another piece that’s important, is to set the expectation for students that college is going to be challenging, but we are here to help, so please reach out, see the tutor, get the information that you need,” she explained. “Those are the kinds of things that allow students to really thrive and be successful.”
With more students expressing skepticism about the value of a college degree, another form of outreach that colleges and education leaders should do is explain to individuals and families why they should pursue college at all, Reed added.
“How do we make that case to them that higher education is a path to prosperity? Is it a certainty or is it a gamble?” she said. “People understand the affordability challenge; they don’t understand the value proposition. What does that look like? For me, when I hear people continuing to ask the question ‘is college worth it,’ it’s a message to us as educators that there is more work to be done.”
Aiding Colleges that Serve Marginalized Students
Falling college enrollments are affecting some students more than others. In Louisiana, college-going has decreased among African American males and adults, according to Reed, while rural students faced special barriers in West Virginia, Tucker said.
Thompson noted that in some states, advocating for these students—whom the leader called “the most disenfranchised populations”—is not politically popular. But he tries to make clear to Kentucky lawmakers how improving equity in higher education connects with the state’s economic goals.
“You want us to give a return on investment for the outcomes you want in the workplace?” Thompson said. “We’re going to have to get a lot more people of color and a lot more low-income people into the pipeline.”
One way to support these groups, the three leaders agreed, is to invest in colleges where large shares of them typically study: regional public institutions, community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities. Reed said these institutions tend to understand their students’ needs as well as how best to connect them with promising pathways to employment.
“West Virginia is rural Appalachia. Generations and generations and generations of people have stayed in our state and have stayed with their families because that is something that we value very, very much. And going away, driving far away—even if it’s four hours, which may seem like nothing to some of you—it’s a lot for the people where I live,” Tucker explained. “A lot of folks do better if they’re able to be near their home and they have that support structure and that support system. And those regional institutions, those community colleges, they provide that support structure.”
Fellow officials should advocate on behalf of these colleges in their own states, Reed advised.
“Talk about them as a great first choice with great outcomes,” she said. “We need to tell the success stories of these institutions.”