If you’re as old as me, you no doubt remember the hoary typing drill “This is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.” No matter how hard-pressed our colleges and universities currently are, this is certainly the time to come to the aid of their communities.
We’re familiar with many of the ways that higher education institutions are responding to the current health crisis. Many are providing emergency grants, housing students who would otherwise be left homeless and distributing food, computers and Wi-Fi hotspots. Some institutions are going further, providing accommodations to essential workers, offering COVID-19 testing and distributing masks, gloves and other forms of personal protective equipment. Some are even manufacturing ventilators and helping small businesses navigate the application process for CARES funds.
Here are some other innovative responses that some campuses, including Hunter College, are taking.
1. Offering Free or Very Low-Cost Summer Courses
With many summer jobs and internships unavailable and the spring semester disrupted, many colleges and universities are encouraging students to take summer classes to keep them on track to timely graduation. My advice: persuade your campus’s best online instructors to teach this summer, to ensure course quality and align course offerings with student needs, focusing on prerequisite, required and gateway into major courses.
2. Establishing College@Home Programs
Connect with alumni, parents, potential applicants and others by showcasing your campus’s expertise. This is a great opportunity to host lectures on high-interest topics, including the pandemic, and hold virtual cultural events, like an arts showcase featuring individual performances and exhibitions.
3. Incentivizing Entry Into Master’s, Certificate and Certification Programs
Waive application fees. Offer introductory courses for free. Make it easy for recent graduates and prospective students to discover whether a teacher certification program, a certificate program or a professional master’s program is right for them.
4. Partnering With Local Schools, Cultural Institutions and Nonprofits
Colleges and universities can assist local schools and nonprofits with research, program evaluation and grant writing. They can partner with K-12 schools by offering after-school programs (like Columbia’s Philosophy and Neuroscience in the schools), and developing instructional materials and providing professional development training.
5. Mobilizing Volunteers
Colleges and universities have a remarkable network of alumni that can be encouraged to serve as career mentors, success coaches and campus ambassadors.
6. Helping Students and Recent Graduates Find Jobs
Our career services offices need to do everything they can to help our students and alumni locate job opportunities. For example, the CDC Foundation is recruiting for a large number of positions nationwide to support the work of the CDC COVID Response Corps. Some of these positions only require a bachelor's. Available positions can be found here.
Our colleges must stand up and answer the call to service.
Helping our communities is not simply an act of altruism. If higher education is to emerge from this crisis in anything like its current form, it will require an unprecedented infusion of public funds. Such expenditures will only be forthcoming if our institutions can affirm categorically that their top priorities are undergraduate education and the well-being of our communities, regions and states.
This is not to say that the public and government are uninterested in academic research or specialized scholarship. But given the states’ competing priorities -- Medicaid, mental health, criminal justice, K-12 education, public transportation -- it is more important than ever for colleges and universities to demonstrate their commitment to access, affordability, inclusion, accountability, rigor, relevance and service.
Suspicion of higher education runs deep. Large swaths of the public believe, not without reason, that faculty are more committed to their research than to teaching and that campuses are more focused on growth and prestige than affordability or community service. This is a moment to rebuild ties with the public and reaffirm the services and resources that we offer that go well beyond sports and entertainment.
Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.