Challenges and Opportunities for Community Colleges in a New Normal

People raising hands looking at computer with conference meeting on screen
August 10, 2021

The students we saw in our classrooms in 2019 will not return to our classrooms in the fall of 2021 or the spring of 2022, or ever. The global pandemic and the protest summer of 2020 have changed people permanently. Both the pandemic and the racial reckoning related to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have revealed disparities in the fabric of our nation which require systemic changes, including changes in our educational structures, methods, and practices. The disparities include economic, health (physical and mental), technology, housing, food, transportation, and more.

Students throughout the country were pushed to online and/or virtual instruction during the pandemic, which forced teachers and administrators to struggle to continue to educate despite the vast differences between our students who have and those who have not. Our students’ lives were often revealed (or not) as we peered into their homes or at their names on a blank Zoom screen.

Both the pandemic and the racial reckoning related to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have revealed disparities in the fabric of our nation which require systemic changes, including changes in our educational structures, methods, and practices.

In responding to the twin crises, faculty discovered new strategies for survival and new methods of communicating, persisting, and connecting with students and colleagues. In some cases, students and faculty are thriving. Yet not all are thriving. My hope in this essay is to offer some insight into the opportunities and challenges faculty face teaching in the “new normal” at our nation’s more than 1,000 community colleges.

The Data

The past year has challenged all faculty, and many of us have struggled to provide online instruction to support student learning. The impact of COVID-19 and the related uncertainty, isolation, and unemployment have resulted in a drop in higher education enrollment. In its June 2021 Current Term Enrollment Updates, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), reported that spring 2021 undergraduate enrollment fell by nearly 5 percent nationwide (727,000 students) with the community colleges representing 65 percent of the total undergraduate enrollment losses (-9.5% or 476,000 fewer students).

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) Fast Facts report notes that two-year students tend to be more diverse than four-year college students in age, race, and economic status. The average age of a two-year college student is 28. Yet, 56 percent of our students are under 22 years of age, and it is this group of more traditionally aged students (18-24) that declined most (down by 13.2 percent) during the pandemic. Those enrolled in two-year colleges are more likely to be first-time college students (39 percent), persons of color (51 percent), and attend school part time (65 percent). And our students are more likely to be female (57 percent), work one part-time job – maybe more – and have family responsibilities (care for children, siblings, parents, or grandparents). Community college students are also much more likely than four-year college students overall to be working.

Estimates suggest that half of all university students have taken some classes at a community college prior to earning their bachelor’s degree. The Community College Research Center found that some four-year students took those classes while in high school, others took classes for one term at a community college, and “63% were enrolled in two-year public instruction for three or more terms.” The implication, of course, is that what has happened at the two-year schools will soon reach into the four-year schools. And, if more students complete their two-year experience, then more might attend four-year schools.

Additionally, the public protests associated with the deaths of George Floyd and others have increased awareness of racial disparities in our nation. The attention garnered through increased media focus, community book reads, and national conversations have elevated understanding, but pockets of ignorance (or worse) still exist. Given the echo chambers that are created by digital media channels and frame the lives of so many Americans, college – specifically community college – could be the one place where these conversations can safely and consistently be held. We need to help our communities develop a shared understanding of who the people of America really are and through that understanding increase equity for all.

This is another crucible moment that requires educators to systemically rethink what it is they do and how it is they will do it moving forward. Just as our students will never be the same, we are not the same. And, our instruction must change, our methods must adapt, and our processes and structures must be rethought with equity in mind. Let’s be clear: our educational system was not working well for many students even prior to the pandemic. The last year has shone a spotlight on how broken the system is. I am less concerned with who is at fault than with how to fix the inequities we now recognize. The change – led by faculty – must be systemic.

What Is Next?

Equitable access to higher education has long been a goal of two-year colleges, which offers high value education close to home for many students. Community college faculty teach the broadest range of college students and our future requires that we extend that range. Student access must be increased to allow us to continue to be the great equalizer, affording more students access to higher education. This includes welcoming more students of color, more adult students (including veterans), more returning citizens, more high school students (especially those in districts where advanced placement, International Baccalaureate, and Honors options don’t exist or where participants don’t represent the full diversity of the student body), and more differently abled individuals, including those with physical challenges and neurodivergence.

Student access must be increased to allow us to continue to be the great equalizer, affording more students access to higher education.

As we welcome students to campus, we must recognize that things have changed in the past year. We should anticipate a high level of anxiety about the new normal. Students will need help finding their way around a physical campus and our learning management systems. Things may have changed on campus: offices have moved, classrooms have been reconfigured, and some people have retired. Faculty and staff may also feel unsettled by the return to campus and in-person classes after being away. We need to recognize and care for one another through the uncertainty by creating opportunities to ask questions, seek clarification, and be support for one another.

During the pandemic, students embraced technology as we adjusted to online or virtual instruction. We must carefully review the use of that technology, including its strengths and limitations, to maximize what works and remove those things that fail to add value. The new normal needs to bring more students together with one another through in-person and mediated classrooms. It needs to expand the educational reach of our institutions through programs that recognize and support prior learning, co-curricular learning, credentialing, badging, and other forms of achievement.

But our students and communities need us to do even more. The Rand Corporation has labeled America’s current inability to agree on objective facts as “truth decay.” We must increase our efforts to teach information literacy, critical thinking, civic engagement, and advocacy and find new and better ways to encourage students to understand the power and limitations of online searches, the prevalence of misinformation campaigns in our society, and the importance of advocacy in our communities. This work can take many forms on our campuses, but certainly community colleges are well-suited to teach critical thinking, investigate community needs and support students as advocates.

It is impossible to consider critical thinking and information literacy without also addressing social media. We must increase student understanding of social media tools and their use and misuse. The tools available (and ever present) to the first-year college student are accepted with little regard for their potential misuse. Communication faculty can’t be the only faculty on campus who are concerned about the impact of social media on our students’ ability to gather and use credible information, focus for more than a few minutes or seconds, and connect with like- and differently minded individuals. But our discipline must help students use these tools with skill and deference for their potential, both good and ill. We must model, practice, and advance with our students the online and in-person civic and civil dialogue skills that are the building blocks for problem resolution in a participatory, pluralistic democracy.

We will continue to improve student understanding of communication theory, skills, and abilities – so that our graduates can build and maintain relationships and resolve interpersonal conflict effectively. All too often, I hear students say that our courses are “just” common sense and that they would rather take a career-focused course. If communication is common sense, then I would suggest that our sense is not very common. People too often lack the skills required to listen to others, recognize their own implicit bias, and resolve conflict. The use of violence hardly seems sensible to resolve interpersonal disagreements, yet violence is all too common. The Communication course taken in the first or second term might be the only exposure a student has to the deeper communicative tenets that are the foundation essential to successful relationships, families, communities and even our democracy. With respect to career readiness, both oral and written communication skills continue to be areas that employers value in hiring and promotion decisions. Communication sets the stage for long-term personal and professional success.

Perhaps nothing is more important for our students, our community, and our nation than how we respond to the cultural challenges before us. We must embrace and increase understanding of cultural similarities and differences on campus and in our communities. Ignoring race and class has not and cannot resolve the deep fractures present in our country. Conversations that can unpack racial, gender, class, and other discrimination and allow understanding are essential if we are to move forward from our current space toward a more just, equitable future. While this need is not unique to community colleges, it is imperative that we lead these conversations because currently half of all college students start at our institutions and many two-year college students never attend four-year institutions.

As faculty, we need to rethink the delivery modalities we offer and base them on student need and success rather than on our own preference, pay structures, or other systemic issues. We can maximize the strengths of each instructional modality (online, virtual, blended, and face-to-face) for students based on evidence gained over the last 18 months. This could also push us to rethink how we help students demonstrate and achieve mastery. The resulting blend could reveal a “best of both worlds” learning environment such that modality and mastery are matched. Mastery matters and can be measured, but it requires rethinking how we approach instruction and assessment.

Person raising hand at home with class on virtual screenSimilarly, our societal shift should lead us to reconsider what we teach. To what extent has our use of virtual presentations (via MS-Teams or ZOOM) already challenged the rethinking of public vs. presentational speaking? Online and in-person audiences are different, and our instruction can improve students’ ability to communicate with both. Working with groups online is now something we have done and contributed to – it won’t be going away. We need to help others benefit from the small group theories and content that will increase the effectiveness of both in-person and online teams, whether they be made up of students, faculty, or staff.

We know that student engagement through co-curricular education has long been part of the college experience, although rarely has it been assessed or included in credentialing. At best, a student’s experiential learning is captured creatively on a resume or discussed during job interviews. We must develop ways to document and credential co-curricular learning. On my campus, student participation in co-curricular groups such as our COM club, Sigma Chi Eta, and other groups was challenging even before the pandemic. Between work and family obligations, students tend to come and go to class, sometimes running to work or napping in their car between classes. They infrequently leave time in their schedules for extra-curricular activities. Through exit interviews conducted with COM majors at my institution, students have commonly expressed a desire to participate in such activities sooner in their studies. Perhaps, in a new normal, we use technology to increase student engagement in clubs and co-curricular experiences by including options to participate via Zoom or other online tools. Just as classrooms are being opened to “Roomers and Zoomers,” co-curricular events might be similarly blended.

As institutions, we need to recognize that equity matters and support community efforts accordingly. If we are to increase student success – and specifically the number of certificates and degrees earned by students of color and students experiencing poverty – we must find more and better ways of supporting students through the life challenges that are the most common barriers to degree completion and transfer. This effort needs to address students’ basic needs, including adequate food and housing, but digital equity is also important. Some communities are using their COVID dollars to make publicly available Wi-Fi internet accessible and affordable in areas most in need. As we rethink our systems, we must find ways to meet students’ basic needs and make college their most affordable, value-based option. This means ensuring transfer of credit to four-year schools. It means using more Open Educational Resources (OER) and prioritizing access to eBooks and other online learning tools.

The challenges now before us require our attention and application of the very discipline we teach; by listening with compassion and understanding to our colleagues and students; by building confidence in learners who have been raised in a world that is rife with risks and hazards; by encouraging students to ask the important questions, investigate deeply, and be curious; and, by advocating for the marginalized students and rethinking the structures that restrict student access and success. This humanistic pedagogy is not new to community college, but it is more important now than ever.

Our instruction cannot be infinitely additive, so perhaps the most important question isn’t what must we add but what must we do differently?

Our instruction cannot be infinitely additive, so perhaps the most important question isn’t what must we add but what must we do differently? What must we give up? What changes must we welcome as we move to a new normal? Such questions will need thoughtful consideration by departments and their respective faculty. Because so many community college Communication departments are small, our professional associations will be needed to support these discussions.

We have all been changed by the dual crises of the past year. These health and civic crises require significant educational redesign for equity, scale, and alignment to student goals, employer needs, and civic responsibilities. Our system needs to be intentionally transformed, and college faculty are uniquely positioned to lead this transformation. While politicians argue, we must learn and lead on identity and race. We must diversify our ranks and embrace campus student support systems. Whether the issue is related to modalities of instruction or the content of that instruction, we must re-envision our positions, rethink our methods, and revise our rubrics from an equity perspective. Difficult conversations addressing equity are central to the education of our students and health of our communities. We must help students understand the lifelong process of gathering, evaluating, discerning, organizing, and communicating information ethically and effectively for the benefit of self and others. It is our discipline that can support these campus and community conversations; we can help students make sense of the information they encounter, but doing so will require hard work – work that won’t always be welcomed, but that can provide the real, systemic change necessary to honor and support our students.



David Bodary

DAVID L. BODARY is Professor of Communication at Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio, where he has taught since 1994. A recipient of NCA’s Michael and Suzanne Osborn Community College Outstanding Educator Award, Bodary is currently serving as Department Chair and as a member of the Sinclair Foundation.