In March 2020, students left their classrooms, expecting to return after a longer-than-usual spring break. Teachers, IT people, and administrators sketched out plans for online classes and remote work that they hoped would see them through a few difficult weeks. But as the COVID-19 pandemic deepened, it proved to be much more disruptive than anyone anticipated.
Yet, just as COVID-19 caused community colleges to retract, so too has the ebbing pandemic initiated a new surge of growth. This dynamic may rewrite some of the rules for community colleges moving forward. “In my lifetime, there will never be a change like that in higher education again,” says Nicole Engelbert, vice president of product management for Oracle Higher Education Development.
As different sectors of the economy shut down, consumer spending dropped and unemployment increased. “Typically, when there's an economic downturn, community college enrollment surges,” says Engelbert. “People lose their jobs, they go back to community college to get retrained, and get their next job. This time it was different.” Indeed, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community college enrollment decreased 11.3% nationally and enrollment among underrepresented minorities decreased by nearly 30%.
The impact of the downturn
There are many reasons why enrollment didn’t jump during the pandemic’s economic downturn. Engelbert identifies three factors that she believes have had the greatest impact.
- First, the people most impacted by COVID-19 were minimum wage and service workers at restaurants and retail stores—populations most likely to attend community colleges.
- Second, community college students tend to be older than typical four-year college students—in their late 20s and early 30s—so were more likely to have children who no longer had in-person school.
- And lastly, these demographics may lack the high-bandwidth internet access needed for online courses.
Other shifts took place at colleges in 2020. Projects focused on upgrading finance and human resource systems paused, and college IT teams turned to get online learning systems up and working—fast. Remote students and employees needed reliable connectivity. As the nation starts to come out of the pandemic, higher education leaders are figuring out what goes back to the way it used to be—and what changes are permanent.
The 2021/2022 school year will be a year of recovery—but also one of discovery as the nation reimagines this sector’s role in economic development and more equitable access to higher education. Here are four predictions for the months to come.
- New investments: With the national spotlight on higher education, and widespread, growing recognition of its central importance to equitable economic growth, schools will take advantage of cash infusions to modernize their back-office systems. IT leaders have seen that colleges that invested in cloud-based systems prior to the pandemic were able to move staff home without a break in service—while schools that relied on onsite computing were left scrambling. One college Engelbert works with runs its finance in the cloud and still hasn’t brought those employees back into the office. “The VP for finance says that she can send someone in once a week to cut checks for suppliers that can’t accept electronic payments,” says Engelbert. “Otherwise everything is working well with WFH.” According to Engelbert, IT leaders look to these investments to help make substantial efficiency gains, increase flexibility with hybrid work models, and make it easier to scale programs and services.
- Improving student services: Colleges are even more intent on simplifying the student experience by making services available through virtual and digital channels, and allowing staff members to spend less time on process and more time working directly with students. Research from the Brookings Institution estimates that community colleges spend 22% of their financial aid operating budget on managing the verification process. Automating and streamlining the financial aid process can benefit both students who will be able to handle their side of the process through their mobile devices and financial aid staff who can automate the most common circumstances and focus on students who need extra help.
“An educated population that has hope that their children's lives will be better than their own is a healthy and vibrant society, and community colleges have always played a role in that.”
Nicole Engelbert, Vice President, Oracle Higher Education Development
- Free school? The possibility of free community college is both a sign of hope and a source of fear. Engelbert observes that if community college becomes universally free, it will precipitate unprecedented demand that few institutions are prepared to meet. But if government and communities are willing to invest in community colleges, Engelbert believes that this could have a major impact on economic and social justice challenges. “There was a time when not everyone had a high school diploma,” says Engelbert. “Now most do. Maybe that's the next step, maybe the future growth our economy demands means that everyone has an associate's degree.”
- The community of college: Many campuses were used as testing and vaccine sites and that has reframed their relationship with their communities. The boundaries are blurring, between local businesses and school, and between service to the community and survival as an institution. Engelbert believes that investments in community colleges are one of the things that will help society emerge from the pandemic stronger and that the next ten years may well be the era of the community college. “An educated population that has hope that their children's lives will be better than their own is a healthy and vibrant society, and community colleges have always played a role in that,” says Engelbert. “Ultimately that’s the mission of a community college—to serve its community.”
Photography: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images