Pandemic Lessons From Community Colleges

Xueli Wang shares research that can inform all higher education institutions on critical ways to support students in the coming semesters and beyond.

November 18, 2020
 
 
Ryan J Lane/E+ via Getty Images

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on nearly all postsecondary institutions that contend with challenges around enrollment declines, reopening plans, pivoting to virtual learning, integrating added student supports, shifts in skill demands and more. As we continue treading uncertain waters, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we watch and learn from community colleges. They serve widely diverse populations, who are among the most resilient at realizing their hopes and dreams. And just like their students, community colleges are sites of agile adaptation and innovation, perpetually responsive to emerging societal needs. Amid times of crisis, community colleges are once again rising to the occasion.

How has a community college education prepared students to cope with the pandemic? I share insights from nearly 30 students who started at two large community colleges in the Midwest back in fall 2014. They were part of a longitudinal study cohort that I followed for the past six years.

These students started in STEM programs and courses, but their educational trajectories have since unfolded in contexts broader than STEM fields. The most recent time my team and I caught up with them was this past summer after COVID-19 hit. Some of them had already graduated or left postsecondary education, and others were still enrolled as college students. In our virtual conversations with these students, hearing them address the following two questions shed light on how community colleges have readied them to face the pandemic:

  • Thinking about your time as a student at your community college, what did you learn and/or experience that has helped you cope with the current pandemic?
  • What are some of the things you wish you had learned/experienced in order to better deal with this crisis?

To make full sense of the answers to these questions, I analyzed all interview transcripts and my own reflective notes taken during and after the interviews. Here is what I learned.

How Community Colleges Help Prepare Students for Crises

The students praised their community colleges for cultivating educational opportunities or spaces that prepared them in general to cope with the pandemic. But they lauded their colleges especially for their focus on the following.

Practicality of training and research capacity. The students often took no time in highlighting the practical nature of their community college education. Particularly, those students who received training in science and allied health pinpointed their knowledge and acute awareness of community health and health care, something they found remarkably relevant amid COVID-19.

A related and equally prominent value added by their community college education was research capacity as a key life skill. Their community college experiences taught them how to identify and engage credible sources to reach well-informed judgments and decisions. As one student put it: “My education at [my college] helped me to be comfortable reading the medical literature so I can resolve in my own head, like how I would deal with COVID-19.”

Community colleges are historically known for their focus on practical knowledge and real-world applications. Because of this, students were able to investigate and make sense of the pandemic within their individual contexts. In addition, many of these students were exercising their research capacity through online platforms, which leads to my next finding.

Technology and communication skills in virtual formats. For many years, community colleges have been offering online courses as a way to ensure more flexible options for their students. Online options, imperfect as they are, grant access and accommodate scheduling needs or hardships without students having to miss out on learning altogether. The students often noted how their community college education helped build their capacity in technology and communication skills in virtual environments.

COVID-19 has propelled many institutions, organizations and companies into the online work environment for the foreseeable future. But that sudden transition does not mean that everyone is instantly tech-savvy. That is especially true when it comes to communicating in a virtual space. Interacting online in efficient, respectful, inclusive and productive ways is no easy task, especially with evolving technology. Yet community college students find themselves well acclimated and prepared.

Reflecting on that, one student commented on how her community college IT background positioned her well compared to her co-workers with higher credentials: “Communicating via online and Zooming, being very clear in emails, being more flexible and how I perceive others [communicating] -- that has been important, because some people don’t communicate in a tone that is professional, respectful, or even informational.” Community college students were ready for online work and collaboration long before the pandemic.

Cultivating resilience. Community colleges are designed to offer flexibility that appeals to the many working adults, first-generation, low-income and other minoritized students, who contend with multiple work, education and life obligations. That flexibility also comes with a price -- less structured support -- an issue compounded by the underfunded and underresourced nature of community colleges.

This conundrum has shaped students’ community college experiences in complex ways. The students have gained resilience by pressing on in the face of multiple responsibilities and difficult situations. So while the pandemic has brought a new level of challenges, community college students have been able to tap in to that resilience. That’s been especially notable among students of color, who work through more societal, economic and institutional barriers, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and health equity issues. One student, who identifies as Latino, shared that the community college “prepared me for times like this [the pandemic] where you have this pressure, this looming thing that you can’t really control, but you just have to get through it.” As a result, the students of color tended to leverage their resilience from their community college experiences to cope with the added stressors from COVID-19.

Diversity as a highlight of education. The students praised their community college education for opening their eyes and ears to diverse opinions, even in seemingly objective fields such as science and health. Such experiences challenged their thinking and developed their capacity to engage with differing views. Further, the students described racial diversity as a highlight during their community college education.

That exposure especially helped them make sense of racial inequities in light of the pandemic. The following quote by a white woman is telling as she reflected on how her community college education allowed her to better comprehend the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice: “When I took Intro to Anthropology, my teacher was going over the DNAs between a Black person and a white person and how they’re more similar than if you take two people in the same race and compare them. And that blew my mind especially coming from a racist family.” A community college education contains multiple layers of diversity, bringing students to a deeper level of understanding of both the pandemic and systemic inequities.

An education for the community. Community colleges serve the community, so it comes as no surprise that the students’ education helped them develop a strong desire to give back. The students frequently pointed out the importance of contributing to their neighborhoods, the world and society: “What [my community college education] transferred for me is that knowledge or that mindset: What I do with my time needs to be stuff that matters. It needs to be useful to the world as a whole or to the people around.”

Community colleges aim to foster communities that are built for flexibility and support. Those are the types of experiences that have a long-lasting impact beyond college walls. The students are primed to serve and innovate alongside their community, especially in light of COVID-19. These students feel personally responsible for caring for others throughout and beyond the pandemic.

What Else Students Wish They’d Learned

Over all, the students had very few lingering concerns. But they mentioned a few illuminating areas in regard to stress, engaging with differences and keeping up with technology.

Handling stress and managing time. Because the pandemic has presented heightened levels of stress, the students wished their community colleges had provided them with some sort of crisis-response training. Specific areas included managing difficult life situations, self-care and mental health. Almost half of community college students exhibit a mental health condition, but their institutions struggle to financially support crucial mental health services.

Also alarming, the pandemic has increased mental health needs. Although their colleges tried to help, many students were left to seek services outside their colleges -- if they could even access or afford them. Time management and prioritization also emerged as highly desired skills. Students were already crunched for time among competing roles and responsibilities before the pandemic. Now it has become an impossible race against the clock.

Engaging with diverse perspectives and work styles. While the students appreciated their exposure to diverse groups of people and opinions, they expressed a desire to learn more about how to engage with diverse ideas and work styles. Many students were enrolled in STEM and allied health courses or programs that bear deeply practical implications during the pandemic, but their education often didn’t purposefully integrate skills around how to engage in difficult conversations with people of varying perspectives, backgrounds and work styles. The students especially wished they had learned how to thoughtfully educate fellow citizens on important yet contentious matters, including COVID-19.

Keeping up with the evolving technology landscape. The pandemic has demanded rapid, constant and significant updates and advancements in technology. But it is a steep learning curve, even for the most tech-savvy. Because of this, the students wished they had received more training to navigate what appears to be countless “new” technologies being implemented during COVID-19 across education and work settings. There seem to be infinite platforms for college, work, meetings and more. Of course, the pandemic has made it hard to predict which virtual tools would be necessary and optimal. But students felt they might have benefited from a broader knowledge base to adapt and translate across various platforms.

Takeaways for Higher Ed Institutions

These current and past community college students affirmed the many contributions of their community college education that allowed them to cope or even thrive. They also offered incredible food for thought in terms of what the future could hold. These takeaways are not only pertinent to community colleges but also bear broad relevance to other institutions and contexts. As faculty, advisers and leaders strive to continue high-quality education and supports, I offer the following ideas of how institutions can build on their existing contributions and make thoughtful adjustments moving forward.

Build a stronger curriculum to help students thrive in crisis and a rapidly changing world. Community colleges’ strength in cultivating capacity to identify key information and sources can be taken to the next level by means of a purposeful integration of research skills across the curriculum. That could even take shape through a required introductory course for conducting research, so that students “can go into the world with a little bit more skills in that critical thinking and being able to determine facts from factoid,” as one student put it.

Rather than isolated incidences, there should be common features that transfer across courses and programs to help students develop their research skills. These features may include how to identify credible sources, as well as how to sift through and identify the most helpful and relevant ones to avoid information overload.

To go even further, institutions need to improve capacity and literacy around mental health and well-being. It is especially important that institutions provide students with a variety of knowledge, skills and resources to engage and receive the support they need in ways that work best for them -- such as online or through text messages. Finally, institutions need to ensure that all students, not just those in technology-related programs, are equipped to navigate evolving technologies so they can keep up instead of falling behind.

Establish more purposeful, meaningful and structured opportunities for students to engage with their community. Community colleges and their students are best positioned to serve and address community needs. Institutions should work with students to explore and cultivate a passion for their field that would translate into meaningful service to their community. That can take the form of a career exploration course, along with intentional work and research experiences. Doing that as soon as students enroll would help them reflect and map out concrete educational and career goals.

Faculty and advisers are key to supporting and guiding students toward programs and related opportunities. Otherwise, many students are left to wander around until they stumble upon a course or program that sparks purpose toward serving a larger good, or they may miss out on a potential passion altogether. As COVID-19 bears enduring impacts on communities on multiple levels, it is all the more crucial to align students’ motivation to give back with purposefully structured educational opportunities.

Encourage support-seeking and cultivate multiple levels of connection. Although community college students are agentic and resilient, this should not be the default, especially when it comes to extreme challenges or crises like COVID-19. A clear, explicit and consistent message from the institution is essential for students to feel that they can and should ask for help. Beyond broad approaches of messaging and support, institutions should ensure diverse channels and ways to cultivate a strong sense of connection for students during difficult times.

Community is not explicitly taught but felt. It is connecting with one another and humanizing relationships, now and well beyond COVID-19. One student captured this perfectly: “I think until we understand and connect with each other as humans, we maybe don’t have to share beliefs or respect the same overall ideologies, but really as a society, if we want to be a place that’s safe for people, we really gotta recognize humans are humans, and we need to be careful and kind.”

As we finish the fall term, teaching and learning in higher education continue to be challenged with an influx of daily uncertainties. Yet community colleges lead the way with accessibility, flexibility, innovation and clarity. These institutions have often been left out of the national policy discourse during COVID-19. Yet they are precisely the ones we should look up to.

I hope this essay, grounded in fresh research, shows you all that community colleges and their students are among the most inspirational and that they deserve much greater recognition and public support. Let’s take a page out of their playbook to guide us all to do right by our students with care and community -- an approach we can and should carry with us long after the pandemic.

Bio

Xueli Wang is the Barbara and Glenn Thompson Professor in Educational Leadership and a professor of higher education in the department of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of On My Own: The Challenge and Promise of Building Equitable STEM Transfer Pathways, published by Harvard Education Press.

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