All In this together? Don't forget the community college students

All In this together? Don't forget the community college students
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Like most community college professors, I find the end of finals week as much of a relief for me as it is for the students. I love teaching, but the last few weeks of the semester are tough — this year, especially with remote learning, mandated and courses shifted online.  

However, this year when I submitted my final grades for the semester, all I felt was an overwhelming sadness. I hope my students can come back next year.

Teaching community college was a nearly impossible task before COVID-19. And even with a Ph.D. in political science, most days I wish I also had formal training in social work, counseling, and pedagogy as well. 

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My students don’t meet the profile of the imagined “typical college student.” In many of the discussions surrounding whether or not students can return to campus in the fall, these students’ needs are at risk of being left out of the discussion altogether. 

In the fall of 2019, around 18.2 million students were enrolled in an institution of higher education, with 5.3 million attending public two-year colleges. Community colleges disproportionally serve students of color. 

In 2017, 44 percent of Hispanic undergraduates and 35 percent of Black undergraduates were enrolled in community colleges, as opposed to 31 percent of white undergraduates. 

Two-year schools are vital to the economic health of rural communities. Two-thirds of all public two-year colleges serve rural areas — accounting for the enrollment of 3.4 million students. 

These community college students face unique economic challenges. Thirty-seven percent of community college students have a family income of less than $20,000. Approximately 50 percent of community college students are housing insecure, 39 percent work full-time jobs while in school, and 29 percent are parents.

While it may seem as if community college students with commitments to work and childcare might flourish in an online environment, the COVID-19 crisis and online education have created additional barriers to student success. 

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If plans for reopening in colleges in the fall do not take these students’ unique challenges into account, they may fail to return to school altogether. 

Initial financial aid data bears out these concerns. As of April 15, there were almost 250,000 fewer returning FAFSA applicants than last year from the lowest income bracket, which is families making $25,000. This data suggests that roughly a quarter of a million fewer low-income students will return to college in the fall as compared to last year. 

In addition, applications for Pell Grants for returning students whose family income is less than $25,000 fell by 25 percent from March 15 to April 15 relative to 2019 numbers, suggesting that many students made the decision not to return after courses moved online in the spring. 

The question of if and how colleges can safely open in the fall is certainly important. But it is just as important that colleges and state governments ask, “How can we make college accessible in a post-COVID world?”

The first part of the equation is to discover how community colleges can retain low-income students in the fall. One way would be to offer different course modalities schools that would encourage low-income students to participate.

When classes moved online in the spring, many of my colleagues at four-year universities were encouraged to move classes onto zoom. However, our administrators reminded us that students had not originally signed up for online education and may not have computer or internet access necessary to take an online class. In rural Texas, where I teach, 1/3 of households do not have high-speed internet access.

As a result, I focused on making the remainder of my class very low tech. If students could not access a computer or the online platform, they could snap a picture of a handwritten homework assignment and text it to me.

For the fall semester, however, we are moving our classes to a hyper-flex format. “Hyflex” teaching is getting a lot of buzz in higher ed because it can accommodate social distancing requirements in the classroom, allow professors to check-in with students face-to-face, and be moved fully online quickly.

But hyflex requires teachers and students to have access to a lot of technology, so likely it will leave rural and low-income students behind.  

Rather than focusing on the best way to simulate the face-to-face experience, community colleges—and even some four-year schools — need to ask how they can meet students where they are.

Arizona State University is planning on offering two types of online classes in the fall. Students who have high-speed internet and regular work schedules (or no work schedules) can take synchronous classes online. However, students with complicated work schedules or spottier internet connections can sign up for asynchronous class and complete work on their own schedules.

Perhaps there are other ways community colleges could consider tailoring classes to the needs of low-income students. Many colleges expanded pass/fail options in the spring as education moved online. Colleges and state regulators alike should consider being more lenient next year as well.

One option would be for community colleges to offer paired-down, low-tech versions of a limited number of their general education classes on a pass/fail basis. 

Ultimately, COVID-19 has highlighted the existing failure in our social safety net. Community college students juggling full-time jobs, childcare and school were already asked to do the impossible. It is unacceptable that in the year 2020 so many students don’t have reliable internet access. 

In-office hours I often find myself working through issues that are not directly related to class with my students. The most heartbreaking conversations revolve around situations I can’t really do very much about. I can help a student study more efficiently or manage their time more effectively, but all the daily planners in the world are not going to fix the fact that my students are often juggling working full-time, childcare, and school. 

What policymakers, educators, school administrators and funders need to address is how to keep students from the lowest income brackets in school in the fall. Because not doing so will fail them fully. 

Katie Scofield has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, with a focus on comparative constitutional law. She teaches Federal and Texas Government at Blinn College.