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During a January visit to Bergen Community College in New Jersey to champion the American Rescue Plan’s $198 million competitive grant for community colleges, First Lady—and community college professor—Jill Biden commented on a common challenge for many students:

“You know, it’s hard to express what it’s like to have a bright, engaged student—someone who has so much passion and potential—fade out of my class because they can’t find a babysitter. They start missing lectures … they fall behind and just can’t catch up. Or the cost of childcare just gets to be too much, and they have to choose between extra shifts at work and pursuing the degree that will help them earn more money.”

Biden’s description is all too familiar to those of us who teach and work at any of the nation’s 936 public community colleges. Thanks in large part to the terrific research and advocacy of places like the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, we are much more aware of students’ struggles to meet basic needs, including childcare and food and housing needs.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona recently called attention to these challenges in his appeal to expand our visions of student success: “We have students who are hungry, you have students who are housing insecure, you have students who struggle from mental health needs,” Cardona said earlier this month. “If you think college completion doesn’t involve that, you are missing the point.”

Many of us who make our professional home in the public community college sector are trying to make sense of the enrollment declines of the last two years, recently reported as a loss of more than 827,000 students since the pandemic began. As we attempt to better understand these trends, it is important to remember, as Biden and Cardona’s words above suggest, that the challenges our community college students experience were well in place prior to COVID-19.

In fact, before our world was turned upside down, community college students were carrying a great many obligations outside school, beyond those of being students. And many of them, depending on life circumstances—family illness, job loss, job demands, housing challenges, parenting, etc.—withdrew from a class or two or sometimes more. For the majority of community college students, their identity as students is not distinct from other important identities that shape who they are. As such, many enter higher education through community college already with a tenuous positionality, making decisions to withdraw, slow down, attend part-time and/or stop out more normative and more necessary.

In my book, The Costs of Completion: Student Success in Community College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021), I argue that recent innovations designed to address the “completion crisis” do not fully appreciate who community college students are and the lives they live inside and outside the classroom. Consequently, college-going has become more difficult and far less enjoyable, especially for those who are on the academic and economic margins. As we attempt to respond to the enrollment declines of the last two years, I suggest we do so by learning more about the impact that so many of the initiatives are having on the lives of our students, and the choices they make as a result.

In response to the high rates of noncompletion, and building on research finding that full-time students graduate at higher rates, community colleges have sought to encourage more and continuous coursework. Inspired by the theory of academic momentum, the overriding belief is that the more integrated students are academically, the more likely they are to persist and graduate. This has meant adopting initiatives to push students who were enrolling in the minimum number of credits to be considered full-time (12 credits) to take on additional credits, especially if they receive federal Pell Grants. Just one example I discuss in the book is students receiving a pop-up during the online registration process reminding them that they can enroll in an additional class that is covered by their Pell Grant. That this is done without discussing with a student whether this additional class meshes with their personal and work life outside school is setting too many students up for failure.

While carrying 15 credits with additional intensive courses during the winter and summer may work for some students, it is not a terribly good model for most community college students. Sixty-five percent of community college students enroll part-time, in many cases because they have to. Full-time coursework and compressed winter/summer intensive semesters are just not possible for them.

Secondly, this model of college-going on hyperspeed creates the conditions where college becomes something to “get through.” As a result, students take too many classes, far more than they have time for. They’ve internalized this as “consumers” of their education with some predictable consequences. Those who stick it out experience a great deal of stress and often settle for lower grades as they juggle too many classes, and too many assignments, with their already time-pressed lives. Others withdraw from a class (or more), often having to repeat the class so their grade point average is not compromised, slowing down their progress. Rather than offering a first introduction to college as an inspiring, challenging experience, they are instead introduced to college as akin to a job, something that they must “do”—clock in, complete tasks, but little more than that. This further diminishes their already material-driven weak attachment to their identity as a student, making stopping or dropping out a more rational calculus.

In this way, college-going is devoid of the joy around the learning and discovery process—what makes higher education so transformative. Students who attend community college should get this, too, especially since many are en route to a bachelor’s degree or beyond.

To reduce student success to that of retention and completion, not to mention to tie public funding to these same metrics, has meant that it is the students who serve the institutions, rather than the other way around. This is not to suggest we shouldn’t be supporting students to persist and attain a degree or credential, but that this concern should not be limited to quantifying outcomes. These metrics—while important—should not blind us to how we can create meaningful experiences for our community college students, who comprise almost 40 percent of all undergraduate students.

If we are really committed to the social justice mission of community colleges—a feature of community college mission statements across the country—the focus should be to create community colleges that are “student ready” as we think about ways to respond to the current enrollment declines. Here are some questions to consider:

First, how can we better support the ways in which students have to attend college—whether it be part-time or flexing between full- and part-time when their lives demand? How do we help students who hold jobs that offer just-in-time work schedules also keep up with their academics? How do we bolster our financial aid programs (federal and state) so that there are fewer penalties for part-time attendance, class withdrawals and slower progress? Rather than punishing students at open-access institutions for low grades through the punitive practices of probation or dismissal, how might we support those students who are failing, which is often a result of the complicated lives they live as they try to attend college? True, too, we should find a way for our students who are deeply invested in the lives of their families and work obligations to remain so without making them feel as if they must choose one over the other. Current prescriptions of student success force them to do this, perhaps unwittingly.

Secondly, as much as our COVID world has expanded virtual opportunities, community colleges must reinvest in creating more opportunities for human connections. Of course, one of the ways in which public colleges have responded to diminishing state budgets over the last several decades has been an overreliance on software technologies—for advisement, or for course selection and scheduling. But what this means is that we are supplanting real human interactions with technologies around fundamental aspects of college-going.

Another casualty of defunding public higher education, of course, has been the overreliance on contingent faculty, many of whom are part-time, whose livelihoods are precarious and their capacity to advise and counsel their students deeply diminished. According to the American Association of University Professors’ 2021 annual report, 79 percent of the faculty members at community colleges are contingent.

For first-generation college students, enrolling in their first semester in college, these two trends contribute to an environment that does not seem particularly supportive. The human connection— even if some of that is remote—is necessary and cannot be adequately supplied by pop-up menus, chat bots or faculty and staff who cannot offer more time because they simply do not have it.

One way of increasing human connections would be to draw on the academic coach model that is gaining traction at many colleges to support students who are struggling academically early on. This intervention, where academic coaches meet with students to discuss academic, personal and career challenges and goals, has been found to positively affect credit-hour completion, especially when conducted one-on-one, in-person and regularly.

True, too, peer mentor programs are important not only to support students, but to make them feel as if they belong—a key piece to the enrollment/retention/completion puzzle. Additional mental health practitioners and academic advisers would also go a long way in supporting community college students. And increasing the opportunities for paid internships and work-study assignments (like childcare) on community college campuses would help, too. These are just some ideas for reinvesting in human connections in creating institutions that serve their students.

We will need some time to better understand the current enrollment declines. We should continue to study this and be sure to ask the right questions, especially of the students themselves. It may be worth exploring to what degree some of the current enrollment decline is an unintended consequence of the momentum-inspired initiatives that have made college-going for so many students so fraught. We need to continue to learn more about who our students are, why and how they enroll, and how they think about themselves as college students. If going to college is devoid of joy and engagement, and competing against a whole host of other obligations, college is likely going to be interrupted and/or delayed. Thus, our task moving forward should be working toward creating community colleges that are more welcoming, meaningful and, yes, joyful places for our students.

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