The Complicated Case of Community Colleges and COVID-19

Illustration by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn.

Two years ago Gia Romero had to stay home for a different reason compared to other students right now.

Instead of a schedule of classes, parties, and football games at a four-year college away from home, she worked 25 hours a week while attending her local community college. She missed her friends, but focused on getting into the college’s nursing program and saving enough money to move out on her own.

‘When you go away, people fail and then waste hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Romero, a 20-year-old New Jersey resident, said. “When you stay home, they’re actually getting good grades and it’s affordable.”

Today, COVID-19 has complicated Romero’s vision for her future. After she was furloughed from her job at a physical therapy office, she put plans on hold to move out in order to save as much as possible.

Gia Romero is a sophmore at Rowan College at Burlington County. (Facebook)

“It’s given me more time to do schoolwork, but it’s still a struggle,” she said. “I need a job and my job was supposed to help with nursing.”

About 69% of community college students work while attending classes, according to research by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. One-third hold jobs that require 35 or more hours per week.

Romero insists these busy schedules prepare community college students for COVID-19 era virtual learning.

“I feel like community college students have an advantage,” she said. “We’re already taking online classes…we’re already used to balancing classes with work, whereas a four year school student isn’t [usually] used to that.”

Community college students grapple with the pandemic

Romero was one of the roughly one-half of Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) students taking online classes before New Jersey’s stay-at-home order, according to college president Dr. Michael Cioce.

For the majority of the students, the transition was smooth. The college resorted to remote-learning plans made in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Culinary and nursing students, however, ran into roadblocks.

“It’s tough to replicate a culinary lab or a kitchen that you pay a premium tuition for when your kitchen at home might not be adequate,” he said. “A lot of our health science students had similar concerns with respect to lab access because the accrediting [process] whether it’s radiography, nursing, sonography,….whether it’s paramedics… was all tied to hospital access.”

Students are facing challenges on a personal front as well. A large amount of students have to care for children of their own, according to Cioce. Many also struggle with food and housing insecurity. In a 2019 survey of RCBC students, 38% indicated that they struggled to find enough food to eat, and 16% said they were homeless.

The college has taken steps to make things easier for those who are struggling. Wi-fi is accessible from a campus parking lot, and the food bank is open one day a week. Facebook lives feature advice on mask-making and mental health while updating students on community resources while also the highlighting contributions of students that are also essential workers.

Still, Cioce is uncertain about whether or not school will return in the usual way in the Fall semester.

“I’m not going to give some sort of false hope because if you look at the higher education landscape nationally, there’s big institutions that are already signaling that ‘face-to-face’ return in the fall is probably not going to happen,” he said. “I think making sure that we have concrete plans is key.”

RCBC is located in New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, with the second highest amount of confirmed cases per-capita. The state has 1,200 residents per square mile, more than double than that of New York. Currently, Burlington County has over 3,000 confirmed cases. While the rate of infection has been slowed, it has been difficult for public health officials to get a complete picture because of backlogs and testing shortages.

Rowan College at Burlington County is located in southern New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the nation. (Burlington County Times Archive)

And RCBC students are in the thick of it. On a trip to a local grocery store, Cioce saw students coping with the chaos of working during a pandemic: standing in line six feet apart, wearing masks, and juggling customer’s demands while trying to avoid contracting the virus.

“Before I left the store, I saw six of our students,” Cioce said. “To see six students that are juggling their academic obligations, their familial obligations, and then they’re dealing with a bunch of crazy people who are fighting over toilet paper…”

Many RCBC students are classified as essential workers. Some staff Amazon warehouses and Instacart, and others serve as first responders and health care works, all working in and around Burlington County. The work also continues inside the college as well: eighty students in the college’s nursing program are staffing a COVID-19 hotline call center. Other students have continued to volunteer at the college’s food bank and assist with blood donations. A fashion design student has developed a mask-making business.

“These people are doing things for the greater good,” he said. “It just cements and confirms community college. What does that mean? It means we live in this community…the fact that these students that live nearby me or doing things… just really talks to the spirit of the people that I live near.”

Coping with enrollment and resource challenges

RCBC isn’t the only college coping with the virus. Across the country, community colleges are adapting to accommodate their students. Some have distributed laptop computers to students, while others have made empty parking spots Wi-Fi hotspots. They’ve even discounted tuition. A community college next to RCBC, Mercer County College, reduced the price of credit-hours by 20% for all summer classes.

“While we’re all under this cloud of COVID-19, community colleges are able to adapt quickly to a community’s local needs,” said Dr. Martha Parham, Senior Vice President of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

However, community colleges in the United States were struggling before the onset of COVID-19. In 2019 national enrollment was down and RCBC was no exception. In October 2019, the college announced that enrollment had dropped to 8,493 students, down just over 4% from the 8,890 enrolled at the start of the 2018-2019 academic year.

Research also shows that, as a whole, community colleges lack similar financial reserves to weather the pandemic. Unlike large, 4-year private and public institutions, community colleges are less likely to have endowments supported by large gifts and fundraising efforts. In 2019, a study by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education found that charitable donations to US colleges and universities rose by over 7 percent to nearly $47 billion. Less than one percent of those funds went to community colleges.

Parham maintains that community colleges will grapple with state budget and enrollment challenges in the fall, with funds from the CARES act just “skimming the surface.”

“A lot of colleges are really concerned about having enough to operate on a basic college level,” she said.

Lawmakers in Washington have included funding for community colleges in proposed coronavirus relief legislation. In early May, representative Bobby Scott (VA-3), a Democrat, introduced the Relaunching America’s Workforce Act (RAWA), which would include $2 billion in grants, contracts and cooperative agreements to community colleges.

As another around of coronavirus relief funding makes its way through Congress, Cioce is focused on the benefits community colleges like RCBC can provide for students who are uncertain about their financial future.

“You’re going to have parents of 12th graders who are hesitant and reluctant to commit financial resources that may be totally upside down right now to an experience that can’t be fully enjoyable,” he said.

”The stability and sanity gains that our students have….might be lost today. But…they opted for letter grades because they were able to continue. And they didn’t have the disruption where they had to go for a pass/no pass credit option which is going to position our students well when it comes to their transfer and employment opportunities.”

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