By President Ellen Kennedy
Community colleges remain the most accessible option for higher education and we know that, on average, community college students earn significantly more over their lifetimes than individuals who do not go to community college (according to the Community College Research Center).
Even in the face of COVID-19, Berkshire Community College, like other community colleges across the commonwealth, pivoted in the spring to ensure our students succeeded in pursuing their studies. The college made investments in faculty professional development and technology infrastructure to ensure our fall classes could be held in the safest, most accessible way while ensuring successful learning outcomes.
When asked, spring 2020 students agreed that our efforts to help them complete their studies were aligned with their expectations – namely that they felt supported by the campus, and achieved their course outcomes – even as COVID-19 disrupted the entire higher education system.
“I have been impressed by how campus staff reacted and prepared for the change of environment due to COVID-19. It’s their dedication, professionalism and consideration that creates a friendly and safe environment for all the students. Their effort makes this difficult experience memorable,” said Wenying Yi, a BCC students in liberal arts-elementary education.
BCC has overhauled its course schedule for the fall semester in response to the pandemic, with most classes now being offered online or in a blended format. Courses will be offered in the following ways: fully online; hybrid-virtual; hybrid-in person; and (in a few select cases, such as nursing and physical therapist assistant) in socially distanced on-campus classes. The new class options allow students to choose a course format that works best for their unique health, learning and lifestyle needs. For students who do not wish to physically come to campus at all, the college has significantly increased its fully online course offerings.
Community colleges comprise just one part of the wider higher education landscape in Massachusetts, however. So, what does the fall 2020 semester look like across the commonwealth for new and continuing students? Imagine these two scenarios:
Scenario one: A student elects to start at, or return to, a traditional four-year institution. The school has allowed students back on campus (if they so choose), but with several new safety guidelines, including: wearing masks; restricting residence halls’ rooms to one student; take out services for dining halls, with no communal eating; canceling extra-curricular activities; suspending guest visits; enforcing social distancing; and limiting social opportunities.
Most classes would still be held remotely, except for essential labs or seminars, which comprise only a small percentage of actual courses. Professors and student support services alike must divide their attention between on-campus and off-campus populations, while maintaining social distancing. The traditional “on-campus experience” wouldn’t exist as such, but students might at least get back to their schools for a shortened semester (coming home by Thanksgiving in many cases).
And if COVID-19 returns in another serious outbreak, schools may well need to again shut physical campuses down completely, send students home and revert to exclusively online/remote learning, effectively repeating the disruptive experience of the spring 2020 semester. Students in this scenario, again, would be paying full price for that remote experience.
Scenario two: A student elects to begin their studies at a local community college, enjoying a substantially reduced tuition rate. The majority of their lectures and courses are online, virtual or hybrid options, again with in-person labs and practicums offered in a way that ensures the safety of the faculty, students and staff. (At BCC, where the student-teacher ratio is already a low 12:1, maintaining social distancing when appropriate would be easier to manage than at some more crowded four-year schools.)
Students wouldn’t have to worry as much about a flare up of COVID-19 on-campus, because the majority of faculty, students and staff will already be remote. Student support services have already migrated to remote operations over the summer, and the college has invested in additional professional development for its faculty to offer better online course instruction (at BCC, 98 percent of full-time faculty are working this summer on their professional development, and deploying new course structures to ensure successful learning outcomes for students taking online or hybrid courses).
College students looking to continue their education need never miss a beat in their aspirations: with the MassTransfer program, many of the credits earned at community colleges transfer directly to traditional four-year schools. BCC has additional articulation agreements guaranteeing junior-level placement in a variety of programs with hundreds of academic institutions nationwide.
According to the Community College Research Center: “Among students who graduated with an associate degree from a public two-year college, 59 percent took no student loans, 30 percent had less than $20,000 in loans, and around 13 percent had more than $20,000 in loans.” What’s more, community colleges are more affordable than four-year schools. BCC students can earn the same credits from faculty with the same academic credentials as compared to other institutions, at a fraction of the cost. And with classes being held remotely regardless of the institution, it doesn’t make sense to pay – and risk – so much more for an identical outcome.
Finally, choosing a plan early helps ease the anxiety that many parents and students feel right now. If students return to their four year schools only to be forced back home by another COVID-19 flare up, classes would have already started and students would no longer be able to choose the community college route. They would still have to pay a higher tuition for the same course, and they would still be learning virtually or remotely. There is no need for parents and students to feel this sense of uncertainty right now – community colleges are the safest choice this fall – and future choices for transferring can be postponed until the spring or even next year.
It’s important to remember the whole point of higher education – to earn credentials and degrees that will help students succeed in the real world. BCC, like other community colleges across the commonwealth, has a fundamental mission to provide access to higher education to all residents of our community and beyond. COVID-19 has not disrupted the college’s ability to fulfill this mission. In a time of economic anxiety, high unemployment and uncertainty in higher education, it’s never made more sense to take advantage of the opportunities offered by your local community college to step into a new career, or transfer in less debt to a four-year school.
We’re working hard right now to ensure that each of our students receives a high-quality education regardless of where they’re learning from, with student support services that have been known now for 60 years to help build resilience and perseverance. Our ability to fully commit to our students’ success, even in times of crisis, makes community colleges like BCC a safe choice for students this fall.
Ellen Kennedy is the president of Berkshire Community College.