• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Commuter Colleges Are Different

A glaring gap at a Senate hearing.

June 1, 2020
 
 

A faithful reader sent me a heads-up about the June 4 Senate committee hearing on “Going Back to College Safely.” Witnesses scheduled to testify include Mitch Daniels, from Purdue; Christina Paxson, from Brown; Logan Hampton, from Lane College; and Georges Benjamin, from the American Public Health Association.

Notably missing is anyone from a community college, or even a commuter college.

That matters for reasons beyond the usual. The issues that commuter campuses face are fundamentally different.

At the most basic level, our students leave campus every night, going to homes (or cars, sadly) all over Monmouth and neighboring counties. In many cases, they share those homes with people who work in other industries entirely. Some of those people are older, some are immunocompromised and some are children.

My own college, like the majority of community colleges across the country, doesn’t have dorms. (Among the community colleges that do have dorms, as far as I know, in most cases the dorms house only a minority of the student body.) We don’t have the option, as some of the tonier universities do, of telling students not to leave campus for months at a time. They leave every night.

At one level, that makes matters simpler; not having dorms means not having to manage dorms. But it also means it’s much harder to control exposure. My own college, for instance, has over 11,000 students in credit-bearing classes, plus thousands more in various noncredit courses (workforce development, adult basic education and the like). Some attend full-time, but most attend part-time while also working paid jobs. A student who shows up “clean” on Monday for a morning class might return asymptomatic on Tuesday, having worked a shift Monday night, or having picked it up at home from someone they live with who got it at work.

Over the past few years, as student basic needs have gathered more attention, we’ve worked with the local public transit authority to make the bus schedule more compatible with the class schedule. For all of its virtues, though, public transportation wasn’t built for social distancing. It works by capturing economies of scale, which is another way of saying density. Density and distancing are at odds.

We also have programs for which physical distancing is an awkward fit, like automotive tech or culinary. The Brown Universities of the world may not have to face those issues, but many community colleges do. It’s part of the mission.

Luckily, we have some advantages. Community colleges have been teaching online for a long time. My own already had several full degree programs entirely online even before the pandemic hit, along with a robust teaching and learning center staffed with instructional designers. (A huge shout-out to them, by the way, for their work over the last couple of months!) Many professors who had several on-site classes in the spring also had at least one online one, or had taught online before, so they had a base of experience on which to rely. Unlike, say, Purdue, we never went the OPM route; our online faculty are also our on-site faculty. That mattered when we had to make a midsemester pivot. I hope we don’t have to do that again -- seriously -- but if we do, I know we have people capable of making it work.

Our greatest challenge, as opposed to Brown’s, is funding. It would help just to have someone in the room at a hearing to explain that the usual “supplement, don’t supplant” rule for federal money would be counterproductive during a pandemic. We’ve had our operating support eviscerated; we need to be able to replace it directly. As I outlined in this column last week, rescinded state aid is properly understood as a cost directly related to the pandemic. But the folks likeliest to know that aren’t scheduled to be in the room.

There’s no shortage of capable people available to speak on behalf of community colleges.

No disrespect to Purdue, Brown or Lane College; each is terrific in its own way. Community colleges are terrific in their own way, too; they should be heard from. Treating a commuter college as if it had dorms isn’t likely to end well.

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