By President Luis Pedraja
There is that hint of fall in the air. Nights are cooler, days are shorter and students are going back to college campuses across the country.
However, the pandemic has changed the college landscape. Today we are hearing about colleges and universities that are bringing their students back to campus only to find in a few short days or weeks they have to reverse their decision and move students to online learning. It’s a bit of déjà vu for many returning students, and for new incoming freshmen, it brings a lot of uncertainty and added anxiety. There is no easy answer for college students, as the health crisis continues with no definitive end in sight.
One viable option students can make, but one that is often discounted, is attending a community college. Community colleges have started to take center stage since the virus hit as more people are recognizing their value from an academic, safety and career perspective. For traditional four-year students who are now rethinking their options because their college has either gone remote, or has severely changed its educational delivery mode, I strongly urge you to take a second look at your local community college.
Students who attend a community college are able to stay home, stay safe, and save thousands of dollars in room and board, not to mention significantly lower tuition and fees. By attending a community college, students are able to continue on a direct pathway to a four-year degree, due to the agreements most community colleges have with four-year colleges and universities. Students are able to easily transfer community college credits to a four-year degree program when it is safe to do so. Additionally, with smaller class sizes and quality faculty who are proficient in online instruction, making the switch to a community college can be more than just a way to stay safe this fall. Studies consistently show that students who start at community colleges and transfer to four-year institutions do considerably better than those students who initially start at the four-year college. Attending a community college is a way to begin a journey toward higher education in a more economical way and perform better academically.
Safety is paramount to our colleges in ways that are a bit different from our sister four-year institutions. Our students are not in a college bubble, they are out in our communities every day. They are the front-line workers keeping our communities safe and our economy from failing. At QCC, we quickly moved to remote instruction in early March as COVID-19 cases skyrocketed across the country. We knew it was imperative take care of our QCC community, while being a responsible resident of our greater Worcester County community.
As the pandemic began to decimate businesses on a local and national level, community colleges worked on increasing vital and relevant programs, while changing existing offerings to meet the needs of a shifting regional and global economy. At QCC, we offered a free online certificate course in infection control. More than 400 people from area fire departments, hospitals and assisted-living facilities took advantage of the course, gaining valuable and relevant information. We also offered 19 additional free courses that were utilized by 700 members of our community.
In June, as we realized the heath situation was still tenuous, we announced the college would stay remote for the fall semester. Soon other community colleges in the commonwealth were following suit.
Remote instruction can be difficult in some instances, but one very important aspect of a community college that many often overlook is the hands-on approach learning style of a community college. This type of educational instruction has continued even though learning modalities have changed. Students are more than a “number” at a community college. Community colleges bolster and support the whole student and by extension their families. Support services are vast and personal and are as comprehensive when they are offered remotely, as they are in-person. Support services are not merely academic, they encompass everything from advising and counseling, to financial aid and even basic life needs support.
Often there is a philanthropic component at a community college, which has become a lifeline for many during the pandemic. In our case, The QCC Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the college, quickly helped organize a Student Emergency Fund at the start of the pandemic that to date has raised more than $109,000 for 526 students in need. This aid has gone to students regardless of their citizenship, residency or enrollment status. Additionally, our Food Pantry and Resource Center, already an important resource on campus, became more valued as some students lost their jobs due to the pandemic and were in dire need of food or assistance in paying their bills.
It is important to note that while community colleges are lower in cost, students who attend often have more financial barriers to overcome. At QCC, we received more than $2.6 million through the CARES Act to be used for student grants, and as of late July, over $1.1 million has been awarded to 2,910 students. Not only are community colleges more affordable, but in many instances, students can attend for free by qualifying for financial aid.
For those who find themselves underemployed, or who have lost wages due to a cut in hours, or worse, find themselves out of work, community colleges are a great resource in helping people gain new skillsets to advance in their career or rejoin the workforce. This also aids in the economic recovery of our region.
Today I ask you to give community colleges a second look. Many are just beginning their fall semester so there is still time to register for fall classes. Community colleges have always deserved attention; however, in today’s pandemic world they are now serving a far greater need for our students and communities than ever before.
Luis G. Pedraja, Ph.D., is president of Quinsigamond Community College.