Coronavirus News Roundup for May 26

Everything you need to know for Tuesday and the week ahead about higher ed and the coronavirus in one easy-to-read package (with some distractions to help your sanity). Plus, a special interview with a community college expert.

May 26, 2020
 
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Who's happy to be back after a long weekend?

I know, even long weekends aren't the same. But let's cheer up with some palate cleansers.

Here's a fun video of a cat dispensing water, then getting mad because he can't catch it in time to drink.

Elon Musk and Grimes changed their baby's name. Now it uses Roman numerals.

I may have cut and dyed my hair during all of this. Unfortunately, it did not come out as cool as these pandemic transformations did.

Before we get started, a friendly reminder to stick to the end for our featured Q&A. I talked with a community college expert about what those institutions could face due to the pandemic.

Let’s get to the news.

It's not too much, given we're returning from a long weekend. Be happy for the respite.

A new statement from the Education Department that says "guidance documents lack the force and effect of law" is creating even more confusion over whether colleges can distribute CARES Act funding to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals students.

Division I athletes in all sports will be allowed to participate in voluntary athletic activities starting June 1. The National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division I Council had already voted to let Division I football and basketball athletes start voluntary athletics activities.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

Many colleges are saying they'll test students for coronavirus regularly when they reopen in the fall. Lilah Burke reports on whether this is a feasible plan.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the chair of the U.S. Senate's education committee, is confident that colleges are taking the right steps to reopen in the fall and signaled a commitment to pushing for liability protection for institutions, Doug Lederman reports.

Emma Whitford looked into whether colleges should be tapping into their endowments during this time.

News From Elsewhere

COVID-19 has renewed interest in the push to move the start of Japan's academic calendar, Times Higher Education reports.

The Wall Street Journal writes about how families are fighting over whether students should return to college in the fall.

Higher ed is facing at least 100 lawsuits from students over issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, MarketWatch reports.

Percolating Thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

A Bloomberg opinion writer argues that COVID-19 could push colleges to prove their worth -- or adjust their prices for online delivery.

The former chancellor of the University of Maine system writes about how systems can save public colleges during the pandemic.


Now for our Q&A. Last week I talked with Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. We spoke about what this recession could mean for community colleges and how they could adapt to survive. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you talk about what you expect to happen with this recession?

A: In terms of enrollment, there are three big markets for community colleges.

One is the traditional-age student. In recent years, community colleges have been losing that market share to four-year [institutions], public four-year institutions in particular. The traditional-age populations in many, if not most, parts of the country have declined, the high school class has shrunk, and this is expected to continue. So universities, especially the regional publics, the less selective publics and the less selective privates, have been recruiting students who in the past would’ve gone to community colleges. So, while we might see a bump in the fall, I don’t think that that’s a long-term trend. Community colleges are really going to have to think about marketing themselves and providing the kind of coursework that will transfer to baccalaureate degrees if they want to capture those students beyond just taking a few courses.

Another key market is adult students. After the Great Recession, there was a big spike in adult enrollments 25 years or older. It was over a million students nationally. But there was also Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) funding from the federal government and state retraining money, which, at least currently, we don’t see. Since 2011 there’s been a very strong decline in older students attending community colleges. Colleges say this is partly due to low unemployment. It’s also representative of the increasing fragility of the finances of working-class people who don’t have degrees. They have to take multiple jobs; they're being temped out. Even if you can get the money to pay for the tuition, which is one thing, there's living expenses. The level of unemployment and economic fragility of working, middle-class people in this country are so great that I don’t see a big spike in those students.

The other thing is it varies greatly by college and to some extent by state in how strong community colleges are at retraining. In recent years, again because of the drop-off in enrollment, many colleges have downgraded retraining except for health care. There’s another reason, too, which I think is important. You used to be able to get, with just an occupational certificate, a decent job that would pay $15 to $20 an hour plus benefits in manufacturing or health care. Except for construction, those jobs are paying lower wages without benefits. And I’m talking pre-COVID. Community colleges have gotten expensive. In many parts of the country, a yearlong certificate will cost you four, five or six grand. And if you’re only making $13 to $15 per hour with no benefits, you might as well work at Walmart, which is paying $15.

The final group of students are high school students taking dual-enrollment courses. It’s dramatically increased. But now this also varies by state, and it depends on whether the state covers the costs for students. In the big community college states -- Texas, California, Florida, New York, Illinois -- the state does pay for it. In some rural parts of the country, community colleges have gotten really overly reliant on these students. The trend has just been to offer them discrete courses. But if community colleges are going to capture these students, just like with the traditional-age student, they’re going to have to provide a much clearer path to a bachelor’s degree, because the four-years love these students. They’ll snap them right up. Especially in states where states pay for all or part of the cost of dual enrollment, families are saying that this is the biggest free college program in America. For the good of students, and if colleges want to retain them post-high school, they’re going to have to provide clearer paths to bachelor’s degrees through them. That means not just offering a bunch of gen ed courses, but offering courses that will transfer to the student’s major of interest and help the student figure out what that is.

I think in higher ed generally, you’re going to see an acceleration of what I think of as two business models and educational models. One is sort of a course cafeteria approach, where you’re selling discrete courses at a low cost and programs are sort of stitching courses together. It’s a little bit of an exaggeration but not terribly. And then what we call pathways, which provide not cheap courses but affordable programs that actually enable students to transfer with junior standing in their major or get a good job.

I don’t know what holds the next couple years, but after the Great Recession, the return to skills training alone declined. It was not enough for low-wage workers to get skills training to get them out of low-wage work, which is one reason we believe adults aren’t going back. Post-Great Recession, and I expect this to continue, the good jobs will increasingly require degrees and also skills and experience. I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. We’re seeing innovations, like the community college baccalaureate. Also, the nexus degrees from the University System of Georgia. It’s just an associate's degree that includes skills and experience.

Q: What are the ways this recession will be different from the last?

A: There’s going to be dramatic and very fast drops in state funding. Overall state funding [for community colleges] actually increased during the Great Recession, although, because they had a spike in enrollment, the funding per student decreased. But they also had other funds from TAACCCT and adult retraining funds. Community colleges are extremely dependent on state funding, and they're more and more tuition-reliant. This again is why I think community colleges are going to have to move more toward value for programs that actually lead somewhere rather than cheap courses. They’re not going to be able to compete against the Western Governors Universities and Southern New Hampshire Universities of the world.

We’ve seen colleges -- like Alamo Colleges, Lorain County in Ohio, Indian River, Miami Dade, Pierce College in Washington -- that have moved in this direction where they ensure that their programs lead to good jobs or transfer with junior standing. They help students explore careers in college and they get them on a plan. Those institutions are much better positioned than the typical community college, which are just relying on their low cost and their accessibility.

Well, they ain’t low cost anymore, and a lot of people are offering online courses.

Q: Could the recession affect the number of students who participate in dual enrollment? Could states cut those budgets?

A: If they cut the budgets for dual enrollment, this is going to really hurt colleges across the country. In rural colleges in many states, it is not uncommon to see small rural colleges with half their head count and upwards of 40 percent of their full-time-equivalent enrollment from dual-enrollment students. So if funding is cut for dual enrollment, this is a huge problem.

I think that will be difficult to do because it has become so popular among parents and families and students. But we’re seeing more and more four-year institutions getting in the game and offering online courses, which sound good, but I think the course cafeteria model, whoever’s offering it, is not in the best interest of the student or the taxpayer.

Q: Moody’s just said the outlook for community colleges is stable. Do you think its assumptions will hold?

A: I didn’t see their assumptions, but unfortunately I would make the strong prediction that we’re going to see consolidation of smaller colleges.

Community colleges generally rely on state funding. In many states there is no local funding, or even in states where there is, rural colleges, because the tax base is weak, can’t really rely on that. Local funding provides sort of a cushion, if you will. It’s not going to be a source to make up for other declines in tuition revenue if enrollment goes down and [there are] almost certain declines in state revenue. These rural colleges were already on the brink. I see consolidation.

As states have disinvested in public higher education, the one thing that state legislators don’t often realize is that state funding made possible rural community colleges and other public higher education. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The cities will be able to support themselves with tax base funding and enrollment. In states where there’s heavy reliance on state funding and where there are rural colleges, those colleges are in trouble, and that’s just about every state I can think of. The problem long term is in many places the college and the local hospital are the biggest employers in town. They are the town, so if that goes, that’s problematic.

What you want to do is improve the value and affordability, not just cut costs, because that will cheapen the value of the product.

Q: Are you concerned about states cutting programs for free tuition at community colleges?

A: Yes, definitely. Especially if it’s based on taxes. If it’s based on lottery, like in Tennessee, maybe less so. But if it’s based on state funding, states are going to make cuts that’s just going to make the Great Recession look like a picnic.

Most of these free tuition programs are last-dollar scholarships, so students might be able to use Pell Grants. For adult students, it’s going to be very difficult, because adult students, even if they’re low income, often don’t qualify for Pell.

There’s no question that free college brought more students to college. Colleges are going to have to work even harder now to retain these students. The way to retain them is to help them explore their interests, engage with faculty and others in a field of interest, take a good course that isn’t just math or English to light their fire for learning, and then very importantly give them a plan. I think not giving students a plan, especially now, is just malpractice.

Q: Many popular workforce training programs at community colleges are very hands-on. If virtual instruction has to continue, could this dissuade students from attending community colleges?

A: In general those kinds of programs tend to be more entrepreneurial and responsive. I think they’ll figure it out.

The larger problem is for students generally. If you’re just taking the course that you taught in the classroom as a lecture and it wasn’t engaging in the classroom and you’re putting it online, we have a mountain of evidence from our own children and from many, many students that that is not engaging. We know that in these courses that are knowledge dissemination online, students don’t do well, especially the disadvantaged students that community colleges disproportionately serve. There have been some community colleges that have really worked on the quality of teaching. If you’re just offering standard, not very good courses online, you’re going to lose out to the big providers. I think community colleges should be moving in this direction.

I do have to say, I know I sound somewhat critical of colleges, but I care about public higher ed, especially broad-access institutions and especially community colleges, and I think this is a major threat to them. On the other hand, I think they could come out of this ahead if they take the high road approach, although that costs money and it takes guts and it takes time. I think if they continue to try to turn enrollments through what used to be low-cost courses, they’re going to continue to have a lot of attrition and not be competitive against other providers.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?

A: I think community colleges are flexible. We have seen a willingness to change. I think colleges are going to have to change big-time. There’s been a lot of discussion about the delivery method and the wraparound services, all of which are important, but I think colleges should take this time to examine what it is they’re teaching and how they’re teaching it and what are their programs. And a program isn’t a program in my mind if it doesn’t lead to a good job or transfer to a junior standing in a major. Skills alone, I predict, aren’t going to be sufficient to get people out of poverty.


Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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