Recovery is Opportunity: New Knowledge = New Vision

Pam Sornson, JD

The vaccines have significantly reduced the threat of serious illness or death due to a COVID-19 infection. Now, California’s Community Colleges (CCC) are looking to re-open and get back to business. However, to do so, they must first assess the full scope of the coronavirus’s impact on the systems where that ‘business’ will happen. Once the assessment is complete, they’ll have the opportunity to revamp and revise their programs to address the many gaps the COVID-19 pandemic revealed. As odd as it sounds, the response to the coronavirus crisis may result in significant improvements in how CCC’s train their students and the state’s future workforce.


COVID Stalled CCC Learning Progress

Evolving data indicates that California’s college students lost a lot of educational momentum while campuses were closed, and that, across the country, community college students lost more than those attending 4-year schools:

After eight years of consistent growth, the number of associate degree earners stalled completely during the 2019-2020 school year. The total number of undergraduate credential earners for the last full school year was 3.7 million, the same number that achieved that goal in the previous year.

Compared to data from 2012-2013, the number of first-time undergraduate award earners dropped by 1%, while the number of students earning ‘stacked’ credentials (adding to degrees and certificates already achieved) grew by 2%.


the number of Bachelor’s degrees awarded rose from 1.475 million in ’18-’19 to 1.503 million in ’19-’20, while

the number of Associates degrees awarded dropped from 768,000 t0 738,000 and

the number of Certificates awarded dropped from 468,000 to 444,000, which is just slightly above the baseline 441,000 developed in ’12-’13.

The research also notes a critical distinction between Associate degree and Certificate earners, which are the CCC’s primary populations. Unlike Associate degrees, which are awarded in the spring, certificates are awarded throughout the calendar year, and half of all first-time certificate earners achieve their awards between July and December. In early 2020, the number of certificate earners dropped by 20% over 2019 levels, indicating that they were the students most drastically affected by the COVID-driven school closures.

In too many cases, a lack of adequate resources prevented these learners from acquiring their education through any channel except an on-campus experience. Other research notes the lack of internet access, unreliable digital devices, and overarching social drivers (transportation, existing employment obligations, and family care concerns) that also impaired the certificate candidate from pursuing their educational goals during the public health crisis.

The study concluded that the COVID pandemic essentially stopped undergraduate progress at community colleges, especially for learners seeking certifications, not associates degrees. That conclusion acts as a directive for today’s community college leaders to address the disparities that created such a startling gap between students with access to educational resources and students without.


Recovery will Happen – Let’s Make the Best of It

It’s not possible to adequately measure the losses caused by the pandemic, from the absence of educational opportunities to the loss of so many family members and friends. Those scars are permanent.

However, through a lens of optimism, the upended, post-coronavirus education situation presents an opportunity to remake the community college experience into one that’s truly tailored to meet the student’s needs. It gives the opportunity to eliminate traditional attitudes about ‘higher education’ and introduce 21st Century resources that provide 21st Century supports. It should be centered on student success and set occupational and career achievements as its goal. Looking forward, then, schools can use emerging research to drive their decisions and create solutions for learners that address their current and future challenges while also fulfilling school mandates.

What the research tells us:

    1. Remote learning provides unique benefits for many students. Those who have other obligations in their days can access materials at their convenience. Transportation isn’t required, which avoids unnecessary travel expenses. And in many cases, online lessons are comparable to in-person teaching, so students experience as much academic gain as they would if they attended in-person. Schools that excelled at adapting their programs to virtual classes via an online connection were able to keep many students engaged. In the future, offering coursework remotely will keep more school doors ‘open’ for some students.
    2. Students also need to have an on-campus experience, even if it’s limited. For many young people (actually, people of all ages), school provides social opportunities that are unmatched in the non-academic setting. Both daily interactions and long-term relationships are essential for long-term overall health. The ‘isolated learning’ situation imposed by COVID-19 was a significant impediment even to learners who were eager to ‘attend’ virtual classes. However, the COVID crisis also revealed the infection risks inherent in shared spaces, which caused the closure of the physical campuses. It also demonstrated that sanitation practices are critically important if public education institutions want to maintain accessibility under adverse circumstances. Building up campus resources to facilitate safe attendance on-site will help develop resilience for both students and faculty in the event another pandemic or similar crisis arises.
    3. The pandemic underscored the critical significance of technology as the conduit for every student to achieve the education of their choice. As a community, both public and private investments in developing reliable internet access for everyone, regardless of their location or device, will close the gap between students with adequate technological resources and students without. Perhaps schools themselves could consider adding technological devices for those learners who don’t have the means to obtain them otherwise.

In addition to modifying the methodology and facility for providing school services, community colleges will also have to consider overhauling some or all of their curricula to reflect these new expectations. Doing so will reveal elements that are now obsolete and provide openings to build newly designed options that give a better 21st Century education for today’s 21st Century students.

The 20-21 academic year will likely be a bit rocky as schools and students adapt to all these ‘new normals.’ However, with appropriate care to let go of what’s no longer working and capture the opportunities emerging from the coronavirus rubble, California’s community colleges can establish themselves as leaders in both public education and workforce development.


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