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Community Colleges: Gateways to Socioeconomic Growth During Crisis

The EvoLLLution | Community Colleges: Gateways to Socioeconomic Growth During Crisis
To get through even the toughest of times, finding a balance between responding to your students’ and community’s needs and responding to your own to stay afloat is critical.

With unemployment numbers growing the longer we’re in this pandemic, the number of enrollments will begin to soar. It’s up to postsecondary institutions—particularly community colleges—to get these folks back into the workforce with the skills that will put them at lesser risk for unemployment. It’s up to faculty to deliver these classes in a remote environment while the college looks to prepare for the increasing demand of enrollments headed their way. In this interview, Bill Pink discusses the unique ways in which some faculty are teaching their classes, what tools we’ll pick up from this new shift and how his school is balancing its support for increased enrollments while funding gets cut.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the remote learning environment affected technical and career students, where programs tend to be more competency based and generally lead to a certification?

Bill Pink (BP): What we’re experiencing nationally is that we didn’t get a three-month warning. If you gave faculty that time period to go fully online, they would find ways to figure it all out. So, the challenge here is making that transition with a three- to five-day warning. Programs in the career and technical spaces have been more difficult to move online simply because of that element of surprise.

That said, over the last five weeks, CTE faculty have done some amazing things. An example would be a faculty member in our electrical program who created a video of himself teaching a class for electricians. He’s teaching his students from his driveway. He had about ten paper sets across his driveway and a big cardboard box filled with bags for each student. As his students came by his house, they’d pick up the bags, which had all the materials they needed, and he would talk to them from a distance. He even had some food available for them if they needed it.

This is a program that requires certification, and he’s figured out a way to teach it. He provided materials, instruction and he made himself accessible to students. We need to be at that level of thinking because we’re in unprecedented times. We’re writing the playbook. Now that we’ve set our feet straight again and shook off that punch, it is the time to prepare for the short-term.

Evo: Once we move back to a new normal, do you think some of these innovations and tools are going to be adopted into that shift?

BP: I think they will because what we have found out about ourselves is that in the face of something like this virus, the level of response we’ve had is nothing like we’ve had before. We’ve never had to do this at scale in my time in higher ed. And our response is going to help us out two-fold. First, you’ll never catch us like this again. We’re going to be better prepared the next time something shuts us down. We’ll have tools that we’ll be able to utilize and just deal with it.

The second is that there are some of these pieces, from a technology standpoint, that we’ll keep and be able to use in any way, shape or form. For example, right now everyone is holding their meetings virtually. When we get back to campus, we may continue to conduct some meetings that way because my office is relatively far from where other offices sit. So, it’s about using new technology to our advantage even when we’re back in our regular environment.

Another thing that we’ll have to keep our eyes out for are the academic programs that have never been online before. Now that they’ve been forced into the online environment, students in the future may expect that class to continue to be offered online.

Evo: How is student centricity going to become a part of our fundamental culture and a new normal?

BP: When you truly think about this–from our K-12 partners all the way through higher ed–all of us are experiencing some sort of a requirement now to work virtually–whether you’re a student, a teacher or an administrator. All of us have been thrusted into this. If you’re going to work, this is how you’re going to have to work.

What that’ll do is have folks in instruction, advisement or counseling within our campus say that the online environment wasn’t actually that bad, and that will cause more faculty to adopt some of those technologies and for students to look at continuing with online courses. But we also have to recognize that this environment may not be for everyone, and that’s okay. If we’re in the businesses of on-ground and online, then we can serve both audiences.

Evo: Are there any lessons from the 2008 recession that we can draw from that experience, or is this a totally different ball game?

BP: Yes and yes. It’s the same in that many people have lost their jobs, and sadly some will even be displaced and in need. As a community college, we make the bold statement that our college has to be a part of helping get this community back to work.

That said, we know that through recessions, community colleges typically see an influx of enrollment because we want to upskill or reskill. An influx will be there but not immediately. This situation is different than in 2008 because there was no fear about going into a building or a classroom. Even after isolation, people will question whether going back to campus is safe. From a higher ed perspective, the main thing for us come fall and even second term of summer is making faculty and students feel safe about coming back.  Over time as people feel safer, they’ll come back to campus, but we’ve got to make them feel safe.

Evo: How should community colleges prepare to ensure they’re the gateway to community socio-economic development and growth in an unbelievably challenging circumstance?

BP: If you aren’t having the conversation already, you might be too late. About two weeks ago, I pulled together the senior leaders of our region: our presidents, workforce investment board, our economic development office, our talent development initiatives member and our local chamber of commerce. We sat down and discussed our focus on getting our region and city back to work. We needed to start the conversation so that community colleges and the surrounding communities can have the conversation simultaneously, so we’re all on the same page.

Our mayor told me that she’s putting together a task force. That task force is three-pronged, and one of those prongs is workforce development—which she asked if we could be in charge of. We need these conversations to start because people are already reaching out to our industries and asking what we need.  It’s about going to the employers and asking what it is that need, so we can build our programs accordingly. Whatever they may be, the key to success is supporting their needs. The second critical element is to do it as quickly as possible.

Our conversations always begin with our industry partners. In this case it’s up to us, industry partners, community-based organizations, and our city and county officials to determine how to help get people back to work.

Evo: How do you balance supporting the increasing demand of enrollments with a cut in government funding due to the recession?

BP: There’s typically two ways we go about it. Number one, we like to lean on the employer. We want to understand what the employer needs and what we can do to help fill those gaps. People may be without jobs and therefore don’t have a lot of money. Covering tuition costs can lift that financial burden and employers can play a big part in that. We just need to get them to understand that this is an investment in themselves.

We’re blessed here to have a very vibrant philanthropic community. So, donations are the other way we raise money to help community members get back to work. We do that during the year, and it’s a very strong pathway for us. The other pathway, especially in this environment that we’re in right now, is stimulus packages. But I always ask, how will the stimulus help get people back to work?

Dollars aren’t going to the institutions for specific areas. We’re very lucky to receive grant opportunities from the department of labor. We got a $6 million grant from America’s Promise that we’re using to put people to work in healthcare areas. So, community colleges need to make sure that they tap into those type of dollars because our students aren’t able to get there on their own. In some cases, the employers aren’t going to be able to get them there. We need to tap into some of those philanthropic and federal dollars to get these people back to work. There isn’t enough for everyone, but it will help get us started. And within this space, community college degrees are very low in cost compared to a degree program. Those workforce-based OCT programs typically come with a pretty high price tag.

Evo: How do you shift gears to turn on a dime when we’re moving from a good direction to a poor one?

BP: Some of the people that we’re going to need to focus on to help get them through this crisis are honestly some of the very people that we focused on before the crisis. If we rewind to six to 12 months ago, a lot of our CTE programs funds and grant opportunities were spent on Grand Rapids, not just holistically, but on people in our neighborhoods. Some of those neighborhoods have high poverty and high unemployment rates–anywhere from 20 to 30%.

If that isn’t one of our main focuses, then what are we doing? Part of our job is to help people get jobs. We’ve just widened our focus area The lower-scale crises that those neighborhoods were experiencing have now expanded to a much bigger crisis, but it’s still a crisis. If community colleges hadn’t already been working for and with those folks to begin with, they’re going to need to do it now. You should’ve been doing it all along. That’s the mission.

If we are the affordable option, then we need to make sure we’re accessible to people for whom we are their only option. We have all of types of learners–we’re not solely focused on folks of greatest need, but anyone who walks through the door. We have to be that alternative for everybody, crisis or not.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the work you’re doing to adapt to a recession and creating this access for unprecedented numbers of unemployed folks?

BP: It’s an interesting balancing act that we are all in right now. For us, part of that balance is to make sure we’re doing all we can for our students to have access to education. For example, we waived all of our summer fees: universal fees, online fees, course fees, etc. For some students, that could be over $200 in savings, which allows them to even take another class. At the same time, we as an institution have to stay financially solvent because we can’t just give away education. That’s going to be a huge challenge for higher ed going forwards—how do we balance responsiveness to the students and community while responding to our own needs, like making sure the doors stay open and the lights turned on.

The other part of this that no one’s talked much about is what it means going forward for institutions deciding that they need to do more of a merger? When you look at each other, you may realize how close you are to someone else–maybe it makes more sense for us to do more together. We’re all going to look differently on the backside of this. Some of us more than others.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 21, 2020.