Communicating with Students in a Noisy World
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students
Dealing with a large institutional shift is difficult. Trying to retain enrollment rates in the midst of it is even harder. With the future unknown, it’s important to prepare for both the short and long term. What can help drive an institution in finding and serving their faculty and learners’ needs is focusing on their core mission. In this interview, Sandra Kurtinitis discusses how to support students who are having a hard time in the remote environment, how to remain true to your institution’s mission and what the future looks like as we shift into a new normal.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the shift to a remote working and learning environment been going at your college?
Sandra Kurtinitis (SK): For context, we’re a huge institution. We have six sites, and this semester, there are about 10,000 credit students, 8,000 or 9,000 non-credit students and about 4,000 full- and part-time staffers. This shift is hard for every college, small or large, but it is particularly challenging in an environment with the metrics that I mentioned. I’m so grateful and proud of the work that our people have done to move online. From essentially March 16th to 30th, we went dark, with zero classes and moved our spring break to fit within that time. As of March 30th, all instruction–about 3,000 sessions on both the credit and the non-credit sides—and student support had been moved to remote delivery. That means tutoring, career counseling, advising, registrar work, registering, all of that. Every element of what we do to teach and support students is now fully remote. I would clarify to say that remote does not necessarily mean exclusively online.
We’ve given our faculty a lot of latitude to develop the strategies they need to deliver instruction for the second half of the semester. Some of them are very advanced, but a number of other faculty didn’t have that expertise. We gave our faculty as much flexibility as they needed to develop the method with which they will continue to teach their coursework.
Evo: How have you prepared for the short-term future of this shift?
SK: While we have not officially made the decision to remain online for the full semester, our remote delivery goes through April, and it’s very likely that by next week we’ll make the decision to stay online. But it’s very challenging for students who don’t have the skill or technology to learn. Some students don’t have access to the Internet at home or have old computers, which makes it hard for them to participate. We’ve purchased computers to lend to students. We’ve also extended the withdrawal date by a month and will likely extend it to the end of the semester. We’re trying to listen very closely to what students need. They didn’t sign up for this. Those that are comfortable with it will continue and thrive, but there will be others who simply can’t do this.
We’re working on a strategy to provide a voucher for students who drop out of a class because of this new format of instruction. The voucher would allow them to take that class for free in an upcoming semester. We’re trying to do everything we can to be fair to students, fair to faculty and fair to staff. It has been a challenge, but, we are managing to do it.
Evo: How has this shift impacted career and technical students and the capacity to deliver programming that might have a hard time transitioning to online and distance formats?
SK: Faculty have become extraordinarily creative in finding online instruction. Let’s say the automotive students would be learning on-site with the Corvette hood up. Some of those lessons, with a little bit of syllabus retooling, can actually be delivered online. Even our biology faculty have found materials to be able to do labs electronically.
Now that doesn’t solve the problem totally, and we may end up having to give students an incomplete if they have any outstanding on-campus work. If our governor lifts the stay-at-home restriction by the end of April, we can specifically bring students and faculty back on campus for those classes. We can also adjust the semester length for certain programs. The faculty may choose to continue to finish the semester remotely, but they may also want to just get back to campus, see their students and help them get ready for the exam in person.
It would be great to do some of the exams that are more difficult to complete remotely, but it’s all up in the air right now. Every day brings something new, as our state and country responds to the virus. Our governor has done a terrific job of easing us into this challenging new environment, but he’s been tough when he’s needed to. We feel that by the end of April we may be beginning to crawl out of this cocoon, and we’ll adapt as we come out of it just as we adapted to go into it.
Evo: Are you seeing a lot of withdrawals because of the shift to the remote environment?
SK: We’re not seeing a tidal wave of withdrawals. This week, we extended the withdrawal period without penalty. Some students may realize they need to drop out right away while others may take longer to reach that conclusion, and really that’s the purpose of the extension.
We’re trying to be thoughtful about everybody’s needs. You can’t satisfy everybody, but you can at least give them opportunities to make their own decisions. Our faculty have mixed opinions about moving the semester from a grading system to pass/fail. Our vice-president is meeting with the deans to discuss how we do that. Our thoughts have been that perhaps we stay with letter grades, but if a student wishes to convert to a pass/fail, that would be fine with us.
We want to do things that reflect who we are, who our students are and who our faculty are. You couldn’t find a more dedicated group of people to the premise that students come first.
Evo: Do you think some of the recessions and tools that are being introduced as an immediate response to a pandemic might be adapted into the post-pandemic new normal?
SK: Definitely. Spending a whole day on conference calls and emails is not a fertile life. It’s boring, and it’s hard. Given who our students are, many of them simply don’t have the sophisticated technological skills needed for online instruction. I think we will dial back a bit and land closer to our old model.
That’s not to say our old way is inherently better, but a community college draws its life blood from its community. With 89% of our students attending part time, it’s good for them to sit down with an advisor and walk through their degree audit in person. That human dimension is important to the many students we serve. They don’t necessarily have computers at home with all the different Microsoft software that our campuses have. The other aspect of it is that simply no institution can turn to an online format overnight. Quality checks need to be done. It’s a lengthy process.
Evo: How should community and technical colleges be preparing for what’s likely to be a very different recession than ones we’ve had in the past?
SK: People sometimes disregard this as an old saying, but we’ve certainly seen truth in troubled economic times translating into enrollment growth for community colleges. In the 2009-2010 academic year, we had 72,000 students. Last year, we had just under 60,000. People work; they have full-time jobs. They take one or two classes, with the recognition that it’s good to get credentials but not at the expense of their livelihoods. That’s why we have such a high number of students taking classes part time. We’re already talking with our marketing team about this reality. As a result of this booming economy, enrollment has been declining. But if the economy heads into a recession, we are ready to help people get credentials, in both the short and long term. We’re working on a significant partnership with our four-year colleagues in Maryland, so if a recession happens, we are going to be ready for it.
Even if it doesn’t happen, we’re going to be ready for it. We know who we are, we know what we can offer our communities, region and state, and we have the capacity to meet demand. If people need to get retrained, or if people keep on doing what they’ve been doing, we can help.
Evo: Is there a responsibility for community colleges to support the transition towards recession-proof careers?
SK: That’s a big part of our mission. We’re in an area in which, for many years, Bethlehem Steel was king down on the Dundalk side of our county, and now of course Bethlehem Steel is gone. Who bellied up to the bar? We did. We helped people get retrained, and some of them went on to earn a degree. Many of them were blue collar workers. They needed to become welders, electricians, or any other position that would be part of a steel mill workforce, so that’s what we do. We stand ready.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about CCBC’s transition to a remote working environment?
SK: We’ve had the ability to stay true to our mission. That’s a decision my leadership team and I made back at the beginning of this crisis. We didn’t know how we were going to be able to accomplish what we set out to do.
We made a commitment to everybody who works here that we wouldn’t do furloughs or layoffs, that we would keep everybody on the payroll full- and part-time. As it happened, we ended up with a stay-at-home order, and we fully had to go remote. If someone’s job needed to be hands-on and they couldn’t find another way to do it, we made a commitment to provide work for everybody. After all, we have 10,000 students who would appreciate a check-in call.
That’s a commitment we wanted to make because this crisis is affecting the people an institution depends on to execute its mission. If they were afraid of losing their jobs or of being furloughed, we wouldn’t have gotten the bench strength from our people to facet this incredibly difficult challenge. The only mission we have right now is to teach and to support those who are teaching and learning. That’s all I care about. All of the big plans and initiatives we had–things we thought we were going to get done this spring–are all on the back burner until we get through this.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 8, 2020.
Learn how you can improve your relationship management to attract and retain non-traditional students