Here’s How Community Colleges Innovated to Help Students During Pandemic

From focusing on cybersecurity to creating new cannabis business programs, a recent report by the American Association of Community Colleges highlights how community colleges weathered pandemic enrollment declines.
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Bennett Leckrone is a news writer for BestColleges. Before joining BestColleges, Leckrone reported on state politics with the nonprofit news outlet Maryland Matters as a Report for America fellow. He previously interned for The Chronicle of Higher Ed...
Published on March 23, 2023
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  • Community colleges shared a wide range of pandemic innovations during a virtual listening tour, according to an American Association of Community Colleges report.
  • Community college leaders saw dual enrollment as a key access point for students but noted that historically underserved students were underrepresented in those programs.
  • Some states adopted accelerated dual enrollment programs to combat lost time due to pandemic-related school disruptions.
  • Community colleges are embracing growing fields, including cybersecurity and the cannabis industry, according to the report.

The pandemic accelerated enrollment drops at community colleges — but schools adopted a wide range of innovative strategies to stay afloat, according to a new report.

From boosting dual enrollment to paying for students' textbooks, community college leaders described an assortment of strategies to combat enrollment during the American Association of Community Colleges' (AACC) virtual listening tour, according to a report.

Dual enrollment both boosts student success and encourages them to continue their education, BestColleges previously reported, although it can at times be costly for community colleges.

Community college leaders noted during the listening tour that the pandemic enrollment losses extended to high school students, who dropped from dual enrollment programs during pandemic-related closures.

States adopted accelerated programs to cut back on those losses, according to the report. Indiana, Montana, and Louisiana all took steps to fast-track dual enrollment and boost the number of students graduating high school with an associate degree or credential.

Making Community Colleges More Accessible

A challenge that remains for schools after the pandemic, however, is reaching historically underserved students through dual enrollment programs.

"Several states shared that historically marginalized students who could benefit most from dual enrollment programs are the students who seldom take advantage of the opportunity," the report reads.

"Students primarily from middle- and upper-class backgrounds are the benefactors and take dual enrollment programs, and upon graduation from high school matriculate to four-year universities."

Schools also took a variety of steps to boost equity for their students, according to the report. Schools in Arkansas and Massachusetts took part in equity audits of their programs to ensure they're accessible, and a host of schools took steps to provide financial relief for students in recent years.

Idaho lawmakers provided $1 million to Project Z, an effort to cover textbook costs for students earning an associate degree. In California, schools moved to eliminate traditional operating hours so students can access round-the-clock support.

"Leaders acknowledged that support needs to be available to students when they need it to accommodate the consumer model of anytime anywhere access," the report reads.

Some community colleges also moved to expand housing options for students: In Michigan, Jackson College created residences for single students with dependent children, according to the report.

Community colleges also moved to boost mental health, with New Mexico colleges providing on-call counseling to students and Caldwell Community College in North Carolina opening a clinic to provide both general and mental healthcare on campus.

Pandemic Innovations

Community colleges are at the forefront of growing industries, according to the report, including cannabis and cybersecurity.

Illinois colleges adopted a curriculum that teaches students processing and lab testing of cannabis, featuring a "basic certificate" from the City Colleges of Chicago and a "career in cannabis" certificate from the state, according to the report.

The report also highlights cybersecurity programs at several community colleges, including Los Angeles Community Colleges partnering with NAVWAR — the civilian branch of the military — to recruit and retain computer science engineers. Various major tech companies, including Google and Microsoft, have looked to community colleges to fill high-demand tech jobs in recent years, BestColleges previously reported.

Community colleges often serve as key workforce development centers and anchor institutions in their communities. BestColleges previously reported that community colleges are already developing curriculum to train workers for a $20 billion Intel semiconductor plant in Ohio.