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OPINION: Community colleges are helping students more than ever in the pandemic

community college success

Each of Northern Virginia Community College’s six campuses has a food pantry, which some students rely on for half their weekly meals.

At the Community College of Philadelphia, some 70 percent of students have a full-time advisor they can meet with virtually. Wraparound supports at Loyola University Chicago’s Arrupe College include access to case management services to help with securing child care and housing, paying taxes and finding doctors.

Across the Los Angeles Community College District’s nine schools, students in a program known as L.A. College Promise can receive free laptops to complete their coursework.

None of these initiatives is new — or a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community colleges have long been innovators and leaders in serving students holistically. The pandemic accelerated higher education’s efforts to support students’ basic needs, like food, housing, technology and general well-being.

But community colleges had already been modeling how to do this work for years.

Related: Long before coronavirus, student parents struggled with hunger, homelessness

That’s because community colleges are called on to serve students who have the least, with populations that tend to be more diverse and come from groups that have been historically underserved by the education system and the economy.

With additional relief for higher education likely on the table in the next Congress — and a community college professor and advocate heading into the White House in future first lady Jill Biden — ensuring community colleges receive the resources they need should be a top priority for policymakers.

According to a survey early in the pandemic, more than 4 in 10 community college students were affected by food insecurity, while 11 percent experienced homelessness. Enrollment declines, both overall and for first-year students in particular, have also been most severe for community colleges, likely signaling the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.

Traditional student outcome metrics like completion rates and the amount of time it takes to graduate are critical, but do not always paint a clear picture of what success means for two-year schools.

Through it all, community colleges serve those who have fewer resources, and they do so with less funding. Higher education policy and funding models are largely based on “traditional” students attending four-year institutions — a system not designed to fully measure, understand or support community college success.

We have documented through our respective research the extent to which federally collected data can fall short in providing insight on community colleges — along with ways that holistic measures of student success hold promise.

Traditional student outcome metrics like completion rates and the amount of time it takes to graduate are critical, but do not always paint a clear picture of what success means for two-year schools.

While community colleges enroll about 40 percent of all U.S. students, they received just 27 percent of all funding provided to higher education through the CARES Act. That’s because the funding was distributed based on an institution’s full-time equivalent enrollment, rather than its total student head count.

A large share of community college students take classes part time, which meant their schools had less money to distribute per student, even though their students needed the aid most.

Even before the pandemic, funding for community colleges amounted to just 61 cents for every dollar received by master’s degree institutions, and 37 cents for every dollar given to doctoral universities — figures that have barely shifted over the past decade.

That’s why it’s past time to rethink how we value community colleges and how we measure their success. It’s time to make sure they get the resources they need.

Michelle Dimino is senior education policy advisor at Third Way, and Christine Wolff-Eisenberg is manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R.

This story about community college success was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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