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Higher ed is changing. Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer and Chronicle veteran, connects you with the people, trends, and ideas that are reshaping it. Delivered on Wednesdays.

From: Goldie Blumenstyk

Subject: The Edge: Community Colleges Are in the Spotlight -- Again

I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Community colleges are in the spotlight — again.

Will it be “community colleges to the rescue” this time? With millions out of work and millions more uncertain about how the higher-ed or K-12 academic year will play out, one looming question right now is whether this lower-cost, closer-to-home, in-touch-with-employers sector will see the level of interest and support that they received after the 2008 Great Recession. And, just as interesting to me, what that could mean for the rest of higher ed.

On enrollment predictions, my crystal ball is a bit cloudy. Plenty of academic experts are in the same boat; even the folks at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, evinced “profound uncertainty” about such projections. But one thing is clear. While the lessons of the pandemic and summer of racial reckoning are still emerging, several areas ripe for innovation or deeper attention are already rising to the surface. Last month I spoke with presidents of three community colleges about how this might change the sector and maybe four-year colleges, too. Five themes stood out from that conversation.

Smoother transfer pathways will matter more than ever. However overall higher-ed enrollment shakes out this year, many students won’t be following a straightforward path, either by choice (because they decided on a less-expensive local option) or by necessity (because their economic circumstances derailed their original plans.) Students swirling between institutions was already on the rise. Covid-19 is expected to accelerate that trend, and with it the hassles of ensuring credits aren’t foregone.

To see that students don’t get lost in the shuffle, Michael Baston, president of Rockland Community College, pointed to the need for more educational pathways designed in cooperation with four-year colleges, especially in programs that could lead students to in-demand jobs. Thuy Thi Nguyen, president of Foothill College, suggested looking at some of the transfer requirements that had been softened during the pandemic to see if those changes should become permanent.

Better relationships are needed with elementary and secondary schools. This isn’t simply about dual enrollment, although that’s an area of growing importance for the two-year colleges too. Rather it’s about finding ways to use the resources of community colleges to assist students and families in local K-12 systems to ensure that remote learning there doesn’t leave kids behind.

Foothill for one, has been schools-focused for 20 years with a training program it offers to K-12 instructors on teaching with technology, and Nguyen said this summer, “the classes are crowded — virtually, of course,” with even more teachers than usual. Mentoring programs for younger students are another option, one which Lorain Community College is exploring now, said Marcia Ballinger, its president. Yet, as Baston noted, many colleges have not been as robust in building relationships with their school districts that could inform them on how they could best serve families’ needs at times like these. “Oftentimes," he said, “the systems are not in communication to the extent that we need to be.”

Shorter programs could be especially useful to students right now. With unemployment at 10 percent (and even higher for Black and Hispanic adults) and families’ circumstances up-ended by home-schooling or health demands, students may be far less willing to sign up for even a two-year commitment.

The time pressures on many potential students are growing. That’s one reason Lorain has rolled out 21 new certificate programs that allow students to earn an industry-certified credential in 16 weeks or less. It’s also created new associate’s degree programs that can be earned in just 15 months..

Connections with employers will be even more critical than before. Community colleges have long been known for their close ties with local businesses and other employers. But with many local economies in turmoil right now, colleges can’t afford to take those relationships for granted. Employer’s needs are changing fast — and as Baston noted, the educational marketplace is expanding to include many more “edupreneurs” offering industry-aligned alternatives to traditional colleges.

That’s been a trend for a while, but the pandemic seems to have accelerated it. Google, for example, has just announced a new Career Certificate program in concert with Coursera that it says can connect students with national employers after just six months of coursework, while an association of former Google employers have just launched their own version of an online “gap year,” Xoogler School, aimed at college juniors and seniors (some of it’s free; some of it will cost). Two-year and four-year colleges need to “reset the conversation about the educational ecosystem,” Baston said. “Our economic destiny is at stake.”

Colleges that double down on the “community” aspects of their roles can serve an important social purpose. Even when operating remotely — and maybe even more so in that mode — colleges need to ensure that they’re connecting locally.

Foothill’s new course that trains people to do contract tracing in a culturally relevant way, Lorain’s outreach to Boys and Girls Clubs in its region, and Rockland’s role as an educational partner to the local Commission on Human Rights each represent a smart example of colleges’ re-enforcing their relevance at this critical time. Baston said he relishes the chance to work with the commission now, not only “to really advance the cause of social justice,“ but also to show the strength of the college’s convening power. “Open-access institutions,” he said, “have always been democracies’ spaces.”

Quote of the week.

“I watched this in horror.”

— Eric Topol

Topol, a professor of innovative medicine at Scripps Research, as quoted in The Washington Post in response to President Trump and the head of the Food and Drug Administration touting a medical procedure as a breakthrough treatment for Covid-19 absent any clinical trials to evaluate it against alternatives.

Check these out.

— Our friends at EdSurge have just begun a podcast series featuring audio dispatches from six students and five professors dealing with life on campus in the age of Covid-19. Pandemic Campus Diaries will feature reports from these correspondents every other week.

— This November, California voters will decide whether to rescind a 22-year-old ban on using affirmative action in college admissions, a move that presaged similar bans in other states. As Kevin Carey describes in The New York Times, a new study focused on the University of California system found that the ban harmed Black and Hispanic students — decreasing their enrollment and their odds of finishing college, going to graduate school, and earning a high salary. At the same time, the policy didn’t appear to greatly benefit the white and Asian American students who took their place.

— The blame game doesn’t seem to be keeping college students from violating social-distancing rules. Could some informational or cheeky advertising do any better? Last week the Ad Council shared with me a series of ads aimed at college students that will start running in mid-September. Some of them appeal to students’ sense of community (“Do it for your teachers. Do it for your crush,” one implores), while others showcase a physician commenting on Covid-19 misinformation (including the assumption that it’s OK to party with people as long as they don’t have symptoms. “That myth is FALSE,” the featured physician states.) I’ll admit, my skeptical side wonders how many campuses will still even be in in-person mode by the time these spots begin to air, but as you know, I’m all in on the message itself. So godspeed on this: Masks up, everyone.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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The veteran reporter Goldie Blumenstyk writes a weekly newsletter, The Edge, about the people, ideas, and trends changing higher education. Find her on Twitter @GoldieStandard. She is also the author of the bestselling book American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.