Community colleges and their students improvise to deal with pandemic

Hibbing Community College electrical maintenance instructor Jesse Dahl used his garage as a makeshift lab when campus closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Jesse Dahl

Rory O’Brien had a plan.

By fall 2020, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College student hoped to finish 880 internship hours needed for her addiction counseling program. Then she could work as a counselor while taking classes at a four-year school.

O’Brien, 26, dropped out of high school at 16 and never imagined that she could go to college, until she got her GED three years ago. Her goal of entering the mental health field felt possible for the first time. 

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota, and O’Brien’s plan fell apart. 

Addiction counseling didn’t immediately move to telemedicine, so O’Brien and her peers were expected to continue their face-to-face work with clients.

Worried that her respiratory issues put her at risk for COVID-19 complications and about the prospect of infecting her clients or family, O’Brien put off her remaining 580 unpaid internship hours, which means she won’t be able to work in the field.

Minneapolis Community and Technical College student Rory O’Brien had to delay her addiction counseling internship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Rory O’Brien

“I’m still pretty stressed about it, but I would rather keep myself and my family safe,” she said.

Like O’Brien, college students across Minnesota scrapped their spring plans after campuses closed abruptly. Institutions scrambled to move classes online while keeping thousands of students on track amid a period filled with change and uncertainty — a challenge that was acute for community colleges.

Community colleges — more affordable and flexible than four-year schools — offer a path toward upward mobility for low-income students, who have long faced barriers in education and are now disproportionately likely to be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts worry that the added strain will prevent students from finishing the semester or returning to school in the fall, worsening educational and economic disparities.

The pandemic could also threaten the stability of two-year institutions. Recessions are normally good business for community colleges, which see enrollment increases as students seek new skills. But it’s unclear if Minnesotans will want to attend in the face of the pandemic, while the worsening state financial outlook will also likely mean tighter budgets.

Finishing the semester ‘unrealistic’ for some

In normal circumstances, student retention and program completion rates are relatively low at community colleges, which tend to enroll more low-income and nontraditional students than four-year universities. Just over half of Minnesota community college students completed their degree or transferred in a reasonable time period in 2017, compared to about two-thirds of four-year degree students. Experts fear that the pandemic could worsen student outcomes at community colleges.

With the onset of the pandemic, some students have disappeared from their education. Minneapolis Community and Technical College professor Lena Jones still hadn’t heard from many of her students with one week of the semester left, despite her regular attempts to contact those who weren’t logging on. She’s concerned not only about her students’ academics but also about their well-being.

Many of Jones’ students are parents, juggling their children’s assignments and their own while schools are closed. Some don’t have internet at home. Most of them are not full-time students, and they’re now managing the stress of working outside the home as Minnesota’s COVID-19 case count rises — or dealing with the financial stress of being newly jobless. 

“It’s really worrisome, and there’s a lot of reason to believe that won’t play out equally for all groups of students,” said Elisabeth Barnett, a senior researcher with Columbia University’s Community College Research Center.

The spring disruptions could worsen existing educational disparities for low-income students, many of whom are already living “close to the edge,” she said.

Administrators at Ridgewater College in Willmar launched a college-wide outreach campaign after campus closed to connect 4,700-some students with academic aid and other resources like computers and mental health support.

Mike Kutzke, Ridgewater’s vice president of student success, said it’s too soon to know whether student completion rates will drop this semester. Like at many other Minnesota State colleges, Ridgewater students had the option to take their classes pass/fail once campus closed. The college also extended the deadline for withdrawing from classes and changed its policy so students wouldn’t have to repay financial aid after dropping a course.

“We have to be honest — some students have multiple kids, they lost their job, they’re trying to homeschool. Trying to complete this semester may have been unrealistic,” Kutzke said.

Without labs, technical instructors get creative

Hibbing Community College instructor Jesse Dahl never imagined during his 10 years of experience teaching electrical maintenance that he would have to teach residential wiring and motor control online — and have two weeks to figure out how to do it.

Campus closures were especially difficult for community college’s career and technical programs, which rely on lab time and individual instruction to teach students trades like carpentry and welding.

To continue lectures for his students, Dahl recorded videos of himself discussing algebra and circuits at his dining room table late at night, after his kids were in bed. The hands-on labs required a little more creativity. After some brainstorming, Dahl mounted fake electrical boxes to the walls in his garage and demonstrated wiring and splicing via video.

Minnesota State moved 95% of its courses online while campuses were closed this spring, said Bill Maki, Minnesota State’s interim vice chancellor of finance and facilities. The remaining 5% of courses require in-person work, like diesel mechanics, construction and some health care programs.

And students in those courses are in limbo as officials try to determine when they can safely resume that work or come up with a suitable alternative, which Maki said will hopefully take place in the next few weeks. Some of them are nursing students who need just three to six hours of hands-on work to finish their programs, he said.

When clinical experiences were canceled for nursing students at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Interim Director of Nursing Faith Johnson said some resorted to unusual methods to keep up their studies at home. She heard stories of one student cutting open a watermelon — which resembles granulation tissue — to show how to dress a wound.

Dwindling enrollment and budget shortfalls

Higher education officials are turning their focus to the fall. Minnesota State is preparing for everything from minimal disruption with reduced class sizes to the worst-case scenario — another semester without in-person teaching, Maki said.

At community colleges, enrollment tends to rise with the unemployment rate as people seek training to enter a new field or a diploma to boost their income. Two-year colleges could see an enrollment boost this fall if high school graduates decide to stay close to home rather than going away to school or living in a dorm, Maki said. High unemployment could also drive older adults to community college programs. 

But nobody knows yet whether campuses will be able to reopen this fall, and campuses are preparing for the possibility of a steep enrollment drop given the pandemic. 

Higher ed has already grappled with dwindling enrollment for the past decade due to demographic trends and a stronger economy that made it easier to get a job without a post-secondary degree. Enrollment at Minnesota State community colleges declined roughly 14% between 2010 and 2019, compared to the 8% decrease at Minnesota State universities.

So far, fall enrollment across Minnesota State campuses is lower than usual, but the gap is narrowing. In early May, fall enrollment was down about 20% from the same time last year, compared to 25% two weeks earlier, Maki said.

The Minnesota State system was already facing a small budget deficit this year, and the pandemic has further strained finances. Maki told legislators that pandemic-related expenses could total $40 million this spring.

And if enrollment declines 20%, the system could lose $194 million in revenue, Maki told legislators — nearly 10% of its total budget. It’s too soon to tell what the outlook will be on any individual campus, but their financial situations will likely vary, Maki said in an interview.

Given the uncertainty of the next few months and the rate at which COVID-19 continues to spread, O’Brien, the Minneapolis Community and Technical College student, isn’t sure how or when she’ll be able to finish her addiction counseling internship and get a job in the growing field. She thinks she might have to put her on-the-job experience on hold until at least spring 2021 to protect her health.

“I’ve figured out an alternative, but in reality it does still stuck,” O’Brien said. “I could have been employed by the end of summer.”