Community colleges are two-year schools that provide open access to post-secondary education, offer workforce development and training, prepare students to transfer to a four-year college or university, and offer noncredit programs to the community. Community colleges do not provide on-campus housing but can provide some auxiliary services such as dining halls and bookstores.
Community colleges serve underserved and underrepresented populations. These colleges have a solid connection to their local community because they depend on public funding from state appropriations and local taxes. Because community colleges are relatively new and have fewer alumni, their endowments lag behind four-year universities. The median endowment for all colleges and universities is 11.5 times greater than the median endowment for two-year public colleges (St. Armour, 2020). However, community colleges' low tuition keeps higher education affordable and accessible to a more diverse population. (Ives, 2019).
Community colleges that offer online learning increase the access to higher education for all students, but especially for nontraditional students that are more likely to be employed and have family obligations that make it challenging to learn in person. As a result, online learning enrollments before the pandemic were rapidly increasing at community colleges popular with nontraditional students (Xu et al., 2013). Student demand for online education had been growing before the pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19 could increase that growth. Because of COVID-19, higher education shifted from traditional delivery to virtual learning in March 2020. The Instructional Technology Council's 2021 survey indicates that 75 % of community college enrollment will be in online courses within ten years (Lokken, 2021).
Pre-pandemic, the average community college offered a minimum of 25 percent of its courses online, so more faculty and students had already been exposed to online learning. Community colleges have established the infrastructure necessary for online learning, including professional development training and a licensed learning management system. (Lokken, 2021).
Because community colleges have strong ties to the community, they can build relationships with the local K-12 schools to ensure students are successful in their post-secondary education. Colleges can do this by developing high school transition courses for college credit, creating bridge programs for underserved high school students that provide additional support and resources, and working with the private sector to support curriculum development and work-based learning experiences. New curricula and programs can be developed based on community needs (Education Strategy Group, n.d.).
Online learning has some disadvantages for community college students. Large-scale studies of community college students have shown that students with lower GPAs, males, and African American students suffer steep declines in fully online courses, especially in introductory college-level math and English courses. Many community college students are concerned about the financial burden of accessing the internet at home (Fishman et al., 2021).
According to data from October 2020 US Census Bureau survey, 40% of households report that prospective students are canceling their plans for community college. This is more than twice the rate of four-year college students canceling their college plans (Belfield et al., 2020). Economic hardship and the fear of testing positive for COID-19 were the two main reasons for this drop in enrollment (Fishman et al., 2021).
Digital equity is a social justice issue for community colleges. According to the Community College Research Center, in 2016, 37 percent of community college students came from families that earned less than $20,000. Only 18 percent of community college students came from families earning at least $100,000. A study completed in April 2020 concludes students' ability to succeed in a remote-learning environment differs significantly by income level. Over 60 percent of students from lower-income households report not getting the necessary equipment for remote learning. Almost 35 percent of students from low-income families do not have reliable internet access. Over 55 percent say their home environment does not support remote learning (Kim et al., 2020).
Community colleges and four-year institutions should collaborate to make it easier for community college students to continue their post-secondary education. Creating a transfer program that guarantees admission to four-year institutions for community college students is a good start. The Transfer Gateway Virginia's Community Colleges offers students who earned an associate degree and a minimum grade point average guaranteed admission to over 30 public and private colleges and universities in the commonwealth. The Virginia Community College System signed Guaranteed Admission Agreements specific to each institution detailing the requirements for Virginia's Community Colleges, n.d.).
Community College Research Center. (n.d.) Community College FAQs. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/community-college-faqs.html
Education Strategy Group. (n.d.) Aligning for student success. https://edstrategy.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/ACCT8114-Aligning-for-Student-Success-Paperv6.pdf
Finkel E. (2019, November 11). Endowments: They're not just for elite universities anymore. https://www.ccdaily.com/2019/11/endowments-theyre-not-just-for-elite-universities-anymore/
Ives, K. (2019). COMMUNITY COLLEGES AND DISTANCE LEARNING. Online Learning, 10(3). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v10i3.1757
Lokken, F. (2021, August 17). Distance learning after the pandemic: What now? Community College Daily. https://www.ccdaily.com/2021/08/distance-learning-after-the-pandemic-what-now/
Nguyen, S., & Fishman, R. (2021, April 4). Where did all the community college students go? The nuances of student experience with online learning. New America. https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/edcentral/online-learning-nuances/
St. Amour, M. (2020, February 12). Endowments at two-year colleges. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/02/12/community-colleges-increasingly-are-game-endowments
Sutton, H. (2021). Recent research shows the dismal outcome for community college
enrollment after COVID-19. Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners. 23:8-9. https://doi.org/10.1002/nsr.30717
Virginia's Community Colleges. (n.d.) Transfer Programs.
Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. S. (2011). The Effectiveness of Distance Education across Virginia's Community Colleges: Evidence from Introductory College-Level Math and English Courses. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 360–377. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373711413814
I am a higher education administrator with over 15 years of experience in communications and operations. The views in my blog are my own.