How are these institutions likely to be affected financially?
Pollard: Most community colleges already have very tight budgets, and we don’t have the kind of revenue sources you see elsewhere in higher education. We don’t have residence halls. We don’t typically have robust athletic programs. We rent out our facilities for theater productions and so forth, which is usually a good source of revenue, but we can’t do that now that our facilities are closed because we can’t have people congregating.
Ehrlich: On average, community colleges rely on federal, state and local funding for almost two-thirds of their revenue, and most of these colleges were already facing grinding shortages of funds before the pandemic. These revenues are certainly going to be cut further if states and communities have fewer resources.
Community colleges are known for providing a lot of hands-on training in technical skills, like nursing or auto repair. How is it possible to sustain that kind of programming remotely?
Pollard: About 5 percent of our courses will have some face-to-face component in the fall. Because of external accreditation, students in some programs—like automotive technology or health care—will have to demonstrate tactical skills. If our students need the certification in order to get a job, we have to try to deliver it.
There are some highly sophisticated online simulations that work well for some courses, like lower division lab sciences, but not for others. To learn how to fix brakes, you have to actually touch a brake. You can’t simulate your way out of that.
Ehrlich: Community colleges are much more occupationally intense than private or broad access public universities in terms of their curricula, and it’s true, those courses are difficult to do online. Complicating matters is that the majority of courses are taught by adjunct faculty, who get paid by the course. If you’re trying to make a living this way, you might be teaching at two or three or four different campuses. If you’re adjunct faculty teaching auto mechanics and you’re not able to do it under these circumstances, you’re not going to get paid.
How do you see community colleges emerging from this moment?
Ehrlich: There’s the old cliché about not wasting a crisis—I don’t think anyone’s ever had to say, ‘Don’t waste three crises,’ but here we are. Colleges can be amazingly resilient if they revamp themselves in ways that make them stronger than they were beforehand. They’re going to have to tighten their administration and become an even leaner operation. And online learning is going to be with us for quite a while, so institutions that can innovate and reinvent themselves for the times may be able to keep themselves from serious financial trouble. That might mean expanding continuing or lifelong education programs, which I think is going to be the single biggest change in higher education over the next couple of decades, or developing more collaboration with industry partners.
Pollard: We were designed for this. If you go back and read the introductory language to the Truman Commission Report [which called for establishing a network of public community colleges in 1947], it talked about the fact that we were a nation that was fragmented. We had ethnic strife. We were politically disconnected. We had growing diversity but did not know how to recognize that. We were disillusioned. We lacked a national identity.
We’ve been here before. After every major recession, community colleges have been there to help rebuild the country. After Katrina, the community colleges in New Orleans and Houston were paramount to the rebuilding of those cities. We know our communities—we’re intimately connected to them, and there’s a mutuality and dependency in that. We become anchor institutions where communal healing and rebound occurs.