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Charting a New Normal: Education at Community Colleges

Charting a New Normal: Education at Community Colleges

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In the recent article “Charting a New Normal,” Inside Higher Ed reporter Lilah Burke provided an interesting contrast of the four-year college plans to return to in-person classes as soon as possible versus community colleges that are not planning to do so.

There are a number of explanations given by Ms. Burke for the hesitancy of community colleges to return to in-person classes. One reason is that it is not easy for these colleges to shift from online to in-person or vice versa.

Another reason is that many of their students who live at home, work while going to school, or take care of children may prefer asynchronous online courses versus having to attend in-person classes on campus. Other reasons include having a limited number of large classrooms able to host classes while maintaining social distancing, the difficult of mandating vaccines when the population consists largely of part-time students, and a lack of guidance from state health departments.

Community colleges planning a return to campus are limiting the percentage of classes that are held in person. Based on Ms. Burke’s interviews, it appears that in-person courses in the fall are somewhere between 25 percent and 30 percent of overall courses.

At Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts, President Lane Glenn said that plans are in place to offer 25 percent of classes in person this fall. If demand is high, additional classes will be added. After two weeks, in-person classes still have openings.

President Glenn also noted that prior to the pandemic, no more than 15 percent of classes were online. At this point, Dr. Glenn can’t imagine less than one-third of all classes being online.

Given that community colleges serve primarily working adult students who work full-time and attend school part-time, I am amazed that it’s taken them this long to realize the benefits of offering a substantial percentage of their classes in an asynchronous, online format. At the same time, the systems that have been established for supporting students who attend in-person classes have to be revamped for students who are enrolled online.

Providing admissions advisors, academic advisors, career counseling, faculty advising, and so on only in person does not work well for online students. In addition, it probably didn’t work well for students attending in person if they could only attend evening or weekend classes.

The good news is that community colleges have recognized how online courses can meet the needs of many of their students. The bad news is that they have to support students studying in two modalities if they increase the percentage of their online students beyond the 10 or 15 percent that studied online pre-pandemic.

I imagine the road will be a little bumpy over the next couple of years, particularly if the Biden plan to provide free community college to all is passed by Congress. Adding fuel to the fire with increased enrollments when you’re trying to build services to support online and in-person students will be tough. This might be a good time to form partnerships with institutions experienced at serving online students.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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