For nearly 10 years I’ve worked in higher education, specifically within the community college sector. Over that time, I’ve learned the value these colleges offer the communities they reside within, and the impact they have on students. As for many educational institutions, the start of 2020 forced us to break out of the “norm” and be innovative in our student support processes. It made us literally throw the “how-to” handbook to higher ed out the window and start rewriting chapters, sometimes day by day.

As a faculty member at two community colleges, I saw first-hand how each institution handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and each handled it very differently. Being forced to an online learning environment was not an easy task for most students at either institution and quite frankly, as a faculty member, this caused me to have one of the hardest semesters I’ve ever taught. Not because it was forced online, but because everything was changing daily: how I worked with my students, the support services we could offer them, and most importantly, helping the students balance a new type of living while managing their courses.

It’s probably appropriate to share that one of the community colleges I work for resides in the capital region of New York, and the other in the suburbs of Philadelphia: two of the hardest-hit regions of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. I’ve dealt with students dealing with the loss of loved ones in the past, but this semester it took an emotional toll on me. 

It changed me.

I felt hopeless and useless in supporting my students through the difficult times they were facing. The feelings of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion prompted the researcher inside of me to understand what was happening and ask the questions, “How has this pandemic impacted community colleges across the country?” “What is the future for our students and our institutions?” and even, “Can the higher education world survive this?”

In my role as the Director of Product Partnerships at TargetX, I work every day to help our company understand the trends happening in higher education, specifically around community colleges. I research and work closely with our internal teams, current and potential clients, and leaders within the community college sector to better understand the industry and provide our stakeholders guidance on best practices and developing trends.

When governors across the country started closing college campuses, I knew the higher ed world was about to change – new trends were developing – and institutions were developing new best practices. To help understand the impact, and answer the questions I was already asking myself, I worked with TargetX teams across the company to develop the Community College COVID-19 Impact Study. Throughout a two-week timespan, TargetX surveyed community college staff across the country. As the early results trickled in, I was perplexed. Despite my experience, and propensity for keeping a finger on the pulse of higher ed, I couldn’t immediately identify a trend on the impact of the pandemic.

While results in the northeast region were showing overwhelming, often alarming statistics, the midwest states were appearing more optimistic. And, as one respondent stated, “There’s nothing in recent history that really helps shape what this looks like and what the outcomes will look like.”

The results of the study required me to dig deep into the responses and work to discover a common trend. However, this only made me ask more questions. As the study uncovered, operational practices and enrollment trends for summer and fall 2020 varied based on the geographical region of the institution within the United States. While many of the northeast region respondents (67%) indicated their institutions were still determining Fall 2020, 50% of respondents from the western region and 40% of respondents from the southern region were planning for campuses to reopen.

The study found that 45% of respondents believed “no one truly knows what will happen right now” to the future of community colleges. Only 30% of respondents believed that community colleges will see an increase in overall enrollment, similar to the Great Recession.

However, there was one trend that became evident that was not surprising, and that was that the culture and mood at community colleges remained mostly positive. According to survey responses, 93% of respondents felt that the overall mood of their teams is “concerned but engaged.” Some of those concerns were fear of mass staffing cuts and faculty departures, especially faculty nearing retirement.

Personally, I agree with the 45% of respondents who stated, “no one truly knows what will happen right now.” The aftermath of this pandemic will impact how community colleges operate for the foreseeable future. There are still questions that remain for me, such as, “What is the long-term impact this pandemic will have on the US workforce?” “What is the overall economic impact community colleges will have for their community, not just locally, but regionally and statewide?” “How will fall 2020 enrollment impact the future of the institutions?” “Will legislative budgeting impact community colleges negatively or positively?”

Part of me feels that it is going to be a rough road ahead for community colleges, but I do believe they’re going to have the greatest impact on reenergizing our economy and strengthening our workforce. It is once again a time where community colleges will step up to the plate, and hopefully make it a grand slam.

To learn more about the “Community College COVID-19 Impact Study” findings, download the full report.