Ann Arbor, Mich. (MLIVE) — When the Great Recession hit in 2008, community colleges saw record enrollment rates amid widespread layoffs and unemployment, says Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community Colleges Association (MCCA).
Hansen said there are those that believe that the current economic state could spur another increase in enrollment at community colleges, but there is a flipside.
“The counter-argument to that would be, well, if you know people are staying home and not venturing out because of fear and the governor were to open up more parts of the economy, would people feel comfortable gathering in large groups like classrooms or other places to go back to school?” Hansen said.
Hansen said he’s hopeful that people who are unemployed will seize the moment and go back and either finish their degrees or get trained in a new area. But it’s simply too early to tell what fall enrollment at Michigan’s community colleges might look like, Hansen said.
“There’s just too many moving parts to really predict with certainty what fall enrollment will look like at this point,” Hansen said.
About half of community college enrollments in Michigan are in skill-oriented programs like auto mechanics, welding and machining, Hansen said. While some of those programs are entertaining the idea of having an online semester, those kinds of courses simply wouldn’t be able to replace hands-on experience.
But in general, many community colleges were well-equipped to handle the transition to online classes amid the coronavirus outbreak because in many cases, entire programs were already online. Some schools faced larger challenges than others, however.
At Oakland Community College, over 600 faculty members converted more than 1,500 classes to a remote environment during the winter semester, according to OCC Chancellor Peter Provenzano. OCC plans to add more online classes and mostly remote instruction in the fall to limit the amount of activity on campus, because there’s uncertainty about where things are headed, he said.
“What we plan on doing is reducing the amount of activity on campus by offering mostly remote instruction,” Provenzano said. “In addition to remote classes, we’re going to offer something that we call a hybrid class, which means maybe the lectures will be online and the lab may be face-to-face.”
Instead of coming to class several times a week, Provenzano said students might have face-to-face classes once a week at the most. OCC hopes to offer face-to-face classes, but with three different modalities: remote classes, an online hybrid class and face-to-face classes, with the amount of activity on campus being very limited.
Creating three different ways for students to learn, Provenzano said, might deter some students from taking a gap year.
“We don’t want to see students derail their dream of obtaining a higher education, and so we want to make sure that not only are they safe, but we offer them instruction that’s high quality and allows them to keep moving forward in the direction that they’ve set their goals,” Provenzano said.
Washtenaw Community College offers over 25 programs with more than 100 courses online, according to the college’s website. However, WCC President Rose Bellanca said skilled trades courses will need to be held in person when the fall semester rolls around, some in a hybrid model similar to what Provenzano described.
“Maybe you take a class and it meets online one day and another day on ground, and you split the class up like that,” Bellanca said. “All of the faculty and deans have completed plans of how we plan to do this.”
The real challenge, Bellanca said, will be taking appropriate safety precautions, including social distancing, taking everyone’s temperature and sanitizing surfaces every day. She also echoed Hansen, saying some might be fearful of being in a classroom with other people, especially if they have children to go home to.
Even with many new challeges ahead, Bellanca is optimistic about fall enrollment at WCC.
“It is too early to tell, but I think it’s going to be surprisingly strong… I’m leaning more toward the positive,” Bellanca said.
Grand Rapids Community College announced that the fall 2020 semester will consist of a robust schedule of hybrid and enhanced distance learning options as administrators plan to offer some classes on campus. GRCC will deliver instruction for most classes online for a second seven-week summer session, which begins June 30, but some classes in the School of Workforce Development and Job Training programs will be offered on campus.
According to GRCC Communications Director Dave Murray, GRCC’s finance team is projecting a 3% drop in fall enrollment. Murray also said recent high school graduates will consider gap years, but community colleges are still good options.
“Community colleges are an attractive option for them because of the affordable tuition, accessible schedules and credits that can easily transfer,” Murray said in an email.
Lansing Community College Provost Sally Welch said LCC will be offering some traditional online classes, but also some hybrid courses that allow some face-to-face meetings if it’s deemed safe to have them. The hybrid designation will be used for skilled trades and health care courses.
There are two main issues that LCC is looking at, Welch said: where the state of COVID-19 will be in August and how to get ready to have both online and in-person classes.
“Trying to understand if we will be able to hold classes or not based on where the virus is, that’s our biggest challenge. It’s just an unknown,” Welch said. “And we’re basically trying to get ourselves ready for both situations so we can be on campus and we can be online.”
At the end of the day, Hansen said that for most community colleges, having a strong fall semester will come down to preparation.
“Colleges are making all kinds of contingency plans and will be ready to serve students, no matter what the situation is and, hopefully, we can get back to more of a sense of normalcy in higher education sooner than later,” Hansen said.
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