3 ways community college presidents can navigate an uncertain future

While history suggests community college enrollments increase in times of crisis, the reality in the age of COVID-19 is very different.

The double-digit enrollment declines in community college during the pandemic have confirmed that community college students are among the most vulnerable to life’s changing conditions. This

Dr. E. Ann McGee is President Emerita of Seminole State College of Florida.

reality, coupled with revenue challenges, has prompted community colleges to ask and answer difficult questions about how to pursue a sustainable future.

College presidents are faced with hard questions: What are the most cost-effective and successful ways to increase and sustain enrollment? What kind of educational experience will set your institution apart? What will make your offerings most attractive to students who, even with online education, still want a personal experience? Would prospective students describe your college processes — like registration, career advisement, and applying for financial aid — as “Amazon easy”?

Related: It’s official: 2020 H.S. graduates enrolling in college fell 6.8%

Many institutional stakeholders are, understandably, focused on just “making it through.” But schools with a strategy focused on the future will be in a far better position to thrive than those who are only reacting to today’s challenges. Community college presidents have a unique opportunity — and responsibility — to lead that decision-making process. Here are some topics for consideration as you navigate the increasingly complex landscape of higher education.

Infrastructure goes digital.

As colleges scramble to diversify their educational portfolios, investments and approaches that previously have been sound may no longer be the most efficient and effective choices. Instead, technology, program differentiation and investment in relevant future-focused programs dedicated to workforce-ready skills — most with a strong online component — will be the new “buildings and grounds.” Today, colleges are implementing technology across nearly every facet of the institution, and it is continuing to transform the classroom experience itself. Even institutions that already have strong investments in distance learning are looking to double down on their investment to build exceptional student experiences. “We already had very robust online courses developed at FSCJ,” as Jana Kooi, VP of Online and Workforce Education at Florida State College of Jacksonville, told me recently, “but we have been working to make those courses feel more personal and get the students more actively involved.” To that end, FSCJ added a new inquiry-based discussion platform in hopes of increasing student engagement while also reducing the time investment required of faculty. This type of investment in digital infrastructure and curriculum support will be key for institutions looking to differentiate and succeed in a remote-enabled learning environment.

Partner up.

Seminole State College’s Destination Graduation program provides hands-on guidance and financial support with the aim of increasing the graduation rates of low-income, first-generation and veteran students. Measured in terms of re-enrollment, Destination Graduation has a 77% re-enrollment rate vs. a 69% re-enrollment rate for students who don’t access this program. But none of this would be possible without the collaboration of the Heart of Florida United Way and the SunTrust Foundation, now Truist Foundation, who are providing the financial support that is enabling students to achieve their dreams of becoming college graduates. For Seminole State, collaboration with local organizations has proven to be a linchpin in creating programs that benefit both students and the institution. Involving businesses in internship programs; making them aware of the impact your graduates have on their industry; and responding to their industry’s needs are key to garnering financial support.

Build your brand.

Enhancing your institution’s profile in your community is more important now than ever — not only in terms of student enrollment, but also in terms of attracting donors to your cause. How important is your institution to the welfare of your community? Sending this message is an important brand-building and fundraising strategy. Community colleges are engines of regional economic growth. Community college presidents are uniquely positioned to make this case in their roles as both the college’s chief storyteller and cheerleader. For Seminole State, keeping the college front-and-center in the community has led to millions in scholarship support, some of which came from unlikely sources — like the estate of an adjunct faculty member who had invested wisely in real estate. That is part of the joy of fundraising — you may never know who you have touched.

Of course, the success of community colleges in the post-COVID world won’t just depend on new tech investments, creative partnerships and compelling storytelling. It will also require the internal strength and dedication of your faculty and staff, and a commitment to listening and responding to the needs of students. But, through the guidance of skilled and dedicated community college leaders, your institution will prove more than up to the challenge.

Dr. E. Ann McGee is President Emerita of Seminole State College of Florida.

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