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The Chronicle of Higher Education has a series of pieces now running under the banner of “The Great Reopening Debate.” The first sentence is a question: Should colleges open in person in the fall?

I was already twitchy, given that the question is posed as an either-or. That’s not a good sign. But in a triumph of hope over experience, I read anyway.

The credits tell the story. The institutional affiliations of the authors, in order, are as follows:

  • The New School for Social Research
  • Washington University (St. Louis)
  • Benedict College
  • University of Notre Dame
  • Stanford
  • Yale
  • “A large research university in the Midwest”
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Lewis & Clark College
  • University of Maryland Global Campus
  • The Urban Institute
  • Baylor University
  • Harvard Medical School
  • University of California, Santa Barbara
  • University of Chicago
  • Bloomington Bagel Company
  • Northwestern University
  • Michigan Technological University
  • Columbia
  • Rutgers University
  • University of Washington
  • Brown
  • Vanderbilt University

Out of 23 essays, four are from the Ivy League (Yale, Harvard, Columbia and Brown). At least five are from public flagships (UNC, U of Maryland, UC Santa Barbara, Rutgers and the U of Washington, with a possible sixth from the large research university in the Midwest).

Community colleges? Zero. Completely skunked.

I have it on good authority that the community college sector has people in it who can write about educational issues. It’s certainly not a supply problem. If, say, the Chronicle somehow made do with only three out of eight Ivy League schools participating, it could have given at least one community college a shot. With about 1,100 community colleges in the country, I’m sure they could find at least one with somebody willing to write.

Had it bothered to ask, it might have learned that phrasing the question as an either-or largely misses the point.

Online instruction is not new in the community college world. Many have been doing it for 20 years. Even before the pandemic, my own college offered several full degree programs entirely online, as did my previous college. That’s because community college students are often older and are balancing external obligations with college. The students need the option. The pearl-clutching in many of the Chronicle pieces about online education could have been written 20 years ago; at least then, it might have been defensible.

More basically, though, the question of “opening” reads differently at commuter campuses with programs in fields like culinary or automotive, as well as psychology and history. Students here have long built de facto “hybrid” schedules by combining on-site and online classes. That mix allows them to work around paid jobs and family obligations. This fall, most of the community colleges I know are doing a more online-heavy blend of what they normally do: lots of online instruction with some in-person instruction, especially in labs and studios. (In ceramics, for instance, most students don’t have kilns at home.) The idea is to give students the option of staying away from campus where it’s educationally reasonable, without fully abandoning in-person instruction. Reduced numbers on campus will protect those who come to campus. In other words, it’s not either-or, just as it hasn’t been either-or for the last 20 years.

If you assume that “The University” is and can only ever be one thing, the paragraph above may seem shocking. If you’ve spent any time on community college campuses, though, it will seem like common sense.

That’s why the lineup matters. What’s obvious depends on where you look.

From here, the question is not whether colleges should open, but how, and just what “open” means. I’m still waiting for a good collection on that. It’s not too late …

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