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Community Colleges: Promising Pathways for Challenging Times

This college application season has been like no other. News coverage of the Ivies’ shockingly low admissions rates spread like wildfire. What followed were shouts of joy from the few who were accepted, drowned out by the sadness and heartache felt by students who were not.

Though the news cycle has been littered with the Ivies’ admit rates for the last few weeks, far too little attention has been paid to the largely unheralded community colleges that provide affordable, high-quality, and life-changing education for so many students nationwide. As an organization, ACT recognizes the important role community colleges play to serve the often under-represented and traditionally underserved students in their communities.

ACT has long advocated for students to explore multiple pathways to success after high school, including community college and workforce training. It’s critical for students to understand their options and use data to find their best fit.

April is Community College Month—the perfect time to amplify the voices of two senior community college leaders in our home state of Iowa: Chancellor of the Iowa Valley Community College (IVCC) Dr. Kristie Fisher, and Kirkwood Community College Vice President of Student Services Jon Buse. Thousands of students are served each day at their respective institutions. It’s important for us to engage in conversations with them—and other institutions like theirs around the country—about the challenges and opportunities they face as they serve students.

Community colleges across the country are facing immense enrollment challenges that are multifaceted and cumulative in nature.

The Challenges

The common challenges presented by COVID-19 can be seen in almost every community college nationwide. But the enrollment challenges that faced Kirkwood were not limited to COVID-19. The devastation of COVID-19 occurred against the backdrop of a rare but immensely devastating natural disaster. The hurricane-force winds of the derecho that struck the local community in August 2020 shut down the college as well as most of the surrounding area for more than a week. The storm wreaked havoc on the state, which sharply affected students already suffering from the challenges presented by the pandemic.

“Kirkwood experienced a decline in overall enrollment in the fall of 2020. The decline was most evident among returning students with the greatest impact on low income and adult students. We were encouraged that the declines experienced in the fall 2020 were mitigated by stronger than average growth in new students entering in the spring of 2021. However, overall the 2020-21 academic year has been a difficult one for community college across the state and the nation.” – Jon Buse

Application totals for Iowa Valley Community College District enrollments are trending more similarly to pre-COVID levels. Though this seems to be consistent with the national story, there are two underlying challenges that some might be overlooking, which Chancellor Fisher and her colleagues know they will have to face head on: retention and readiness.

Returning students and those who have struggled with learning amid the pandemic are of particular concern. Community colleges like IVCC are gearing up to provide additional supports to students who may have experienced difficulties with the virtual/hybrid learning environment. This is especially true for those who lacked the necessary in-person supports they might have had in a pre-COVID environment.

“We're always most concerned about students who come from under-represented backgrounds. They don't have as much social capital and require important wrap-around services to help them through the system. Students pursuing a postsecondary education have many valid fears. They may lack academic preparedness, have less ability to pay for college, and have less well-developed planning and support networks necessary for them to get to college in the fall. These areas of concern are going to be magnified for students who are traditionally under-represented.”- Dr. Kristie Fisher

The Opportunities

The pandemic disrupted any sense of normalcy enjoyed by college-goers enrolled before COVID-19. It is now more important than ever for all of us to deliberately explain and outline the many pathways students should explore and consider after high school graduation. Below, Buse and Dr. Fisher share a few benefits that students will find when they enroll at community colleges:

“I encourage students to explore all of their options. Community colleges also offer a wide array of academic opportunities from career and technical education to four-year college transfer programs. In addition, community colleges offer many opportunities for students to engage in co-curricular and student life activities, and we offer strong academic support services. I encourage students and families to plan a college visit and see what community colleges have to offer. I think they will find we offer outstanding academic quality and a real college experience at an affordable price.” – Jon Buse

“First and foremost, it's about quality. We have to remind students they get a quality education at a community college. The ability to work in small classes where faculty knows your name and you can have that one-on-one connection—community colleges bring all that to the table in a cost-effective way. At Iowa Valley we're so focused on the individual student and giving them whatever they need, no matter what point they're at in their lives. For instance, we have these wonderful residential campuses that can give a traditional student the feel of a dorm, along with meal plans and athletics and of course a high-quality education. At the same time, we have the flexible structure that brings a lot of commuter students to us and a lot of students who are looking for short-term training. We can answer just about any need that a student would bring.” - Dr. Kristie Fisher

“Even though the trials which face community colleges are significant, I share the same hope and excitement that First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden has for this work. From her vantage point as an active community college faculty member Dr. Biden knows how well students in community college classrooms are served. That she is advocating in support of community colleges nationwide is reason for hope. This is critical work that yields outstanding outcomes. It’s true that successful community colleges will strengthen our country.” – Dr. Kristie Fisher


It is ACT’s hope that students explore community colleges as one of many excellent pathways to education and workplace success.