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The COVID-19 pandemic turned higher education upside down, sending millions of students and faculty members online amid unprecedented academic, personal and financial crises. It was an immense challenge, and it’s tempting to focus on the difficulties and disappointments of the last 19 months. But the truth is that higher education’s response to the pandemic has planted the seeds for long-lasting positive change on college campuses. COVID-19 sent our educators back to class, forcing them to learn new ways to keep their students enrolled, engaged and on track.

Now, we must take the hard lessons of the last year and a half and ensure we continue to innovate in the months and years to come. Though originally driven by necessity, the new tools and systems we’ve developed should remain as mainstays of our campuses even after we emerge from the grips of the pandemic. Here are four ways colleges changed for the better during the pandemic.

No. 1: Expanded virtual services. COVID-19’s abrupt interruption of physical connection hit the fast-forward button on our reliance on virtual connections. While online learning was already evolving before the pandemic, the sudden closures of campuses across the country accelerated those changes in ways many people may have previously deemed improbable. Hundreds of colleges moved from face-to-face to virtual learning basically overnight.

But at a number of institutions, it wasn’t just our classes that became virtual. At Rockland Community College, for example, we also began offering mental health telecounseling, virtual testing centers and online academic and career counseling sessions. Students flocked to those digital services, reminding us of the importance of accessibility even beyond the difficulties of the pandemic.

Many students, especially those at community colleges, have been busy working or raising children -- or both -- while enrolled. Expanding our virtual services allowed more students to access support and resources wherever they are, and such changes are here to stay.

No. 2: A shifting mind-set. Along with our technological shift came a mind-set shift. Our faculty members were quickly trained to teach online, and staff members worked to determine how to support students in an all-virtual environment. The result was a greater understanding of how we can better serve our students. We are forever changed.

We have to be. Students will now come to expect such kinds of easily accessible, round-the-clock services. They will demand real-time responsiveness and more accommodation. And they will seek out institutions that express care and concern for them as students and individuals with many varying needs.

The genie is out of the bottle. Student expectations will ultimately play a more significant role, and those expectations should inform how the learning elements we redesigned in response to COVID-19 become normalized in our colleges and universities. We must commit to listening more to our students and to better meeting them where they are.

No. 3: Improved career pathways. Every crisis creates opportunity, and we must now design programs that will better prepare students to meet the emerging needs and possibilities of an ever-changing job market.

Community colleges -- the entry point to higher education for so many people -- have long served as early leaders in offering shorter-term credentials, helping students seeking to become first responders or enter the expanding fields of allied health, technology and telecommunications. We have pioneered career skills programs focused on meeting the needs not only of those wishing to upgrade their competencies but also of local and regional businesses looking to fill empty positions. After the pandemic’s devastating impact on our workforce, we are doubling down on those offerings.

Before the pandemic, ​our college’s Career Skills Academy had a placement rate of 83 percent, with students immediately starting jobs at salaries between $50,000 and $60,000 after a few weeks of coursework and on-the-job training with our industry partners. Now we are convening with employers in various industries to increase further workforce pipeline development opportunities. Both students and the industries in which they hope to work must have confidence in our ability to produce talent fully prepared for rapidly changing fields.

No. 4: A renewed focus on equity. With its disparate impact on communities of color, the pandemic highlighted the vast inequities that persist in this country and our higher education systems. But the challenges of COVID-19 have also left our nation with an opportunity to build a fairer and more connected community. Colleges and universities are distinctly positioned to pursue that opportunity.

At our institution, we have developed a culture of inquiry in our quest for inclusive excellence. We have permitted ourselves to ask the difficult questions about the intentional and unintentional consequences of our recruitment and onboarding processes for students, faculty and staff; our student career and academic advising approaches; and our faculty and staff professional development programs and advancement opportunities.

In addition, we continue to challenge the various systems within the institution that potentially serve as barriers to growth, success and equitable outcomes for our faculty, staff and students. We must make equity and inclusion a priority. Colleges and universities can drive critical discussions that encourage inquiry into systemic structures -- asking if they are all connected equally, effectively and intentionally so we can grow together.

Higher education institutions understand how vital it is to think of connectivity not only as a technological goal but as a societal one, connecting on all levels with educators, staff, students and the greater community. We can -- and must -- model how to strengthen our nation in these crucial ways as we look forward with hope toward the promise of a healthier world.

Now is not the time to retreat to the old, pre-pandemic habits. It is time to codify and sustain the positive changes we have made -- and take to heart the lessons we have absorbed over the last 19 months. It is time to keep innovating. And it is time to keep learning.

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