Rather than return to the pre-Covid state of affairs, policy change is needed to strengthen each leg of the “three-legged stool” of community college success: students’ financial stability, learning inside the classroom, and wraparound support services on campuses, Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger told the New England Board of Higher Education’s (NEBHE) Legislative Advisory Committee (LAC) last week.
The LAC, comprising state lawmakers who are delegates to NEBHE and a few additional sitting legislators from each state, has been convening twice a year since 2013, with each LAC meeting featuring national and regional experts on a pressing higher education topic.
On March 14, NEBHE hosted its first in-person pandemic-era LAC meeting since 2019 at Lasell University in a hybrid format, with some attendees and panelists joining via Zoom. The first half of the LAC meeting featured a panel discussion on “Doing the Most with the Least: How State Policymakers can Support Wellbeing, Belonging and Success at Community Colleges for an Equitable Pandemic Recovery.”
Panelists included Eddinger, along with: Sara Goldrick-Rab, award-winning author, professor and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice; Linda García, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin; Alfred Williams, president of River Valley Community College in New Hampshire; Audrey Ellis, director of institutional effectiveness at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts; and Eudania Aquino, a Northern Essex Community College Student Ambassador. Joining the meeting in-person, Ellis and Aquino spoke powerfully about Northern Essex’s new Student Ambassador program, a peer-to-peer mentoring program created during the pandemic to foster belonging on the campus as most students had to shift to online learning.
The second part of the LAC meetings offer a colorful snapshot of legislative session updates in the six states, giving lawmakers an opportunity to learn and share models with one another.
The panel discussion and legislative updates yielded rich discussions about challenges and opportunities in postsecondary education facing the region after two years of Covid. Here are five takeaways from the spring 2022 LAC meeting:
1. New England states should look beyond traditional avenues of financial aid to support community college students. Community colleges serve the majority of the nation’s low-income, working and parenting students. These students have much to gain from earning a high-quality college credential. While many New England states administer some form of need-based financial aid, even the lowest-income students still face significant gaps in college affordability, particularly if they are enrolled part-time (as are roughly two-thirds of community college students). Goldrick-Rab advocated for federal emergency aid to become permanent, and urged New England states to follow the lead of states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington, which have instituted state-based emergency funding to ensure that students do not stop-out of college due to being short, say, $300 (a seemingly manageable obstacle but enough to derail an education). She also discussed installing specialists on college campuses dedicated to connecting students to existing public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
2. Community colleges were struggling to serve students before Covid, and the pandemic added stress to an already-strained system. Eddinger of Bunker Hill in Massachusetts did not mince words: “pre-Covid is no better than post-Covid.” The change, in her words, came from seeing what happened when “we put community college systems through the stress-test” of Covid. Everything—resources, staff, materials and time—“was short, and families were backed up against the wall.” Williams noted that his River Valley Community College in New Hampshire serves primarily rural and female students. He underscored his students’ ongoing need for support in the areas of internet connectivity, food and childcare services.
3. Federal CARES funding supported programming at community colleges temporarily, but states must invest in permanently supporting these institutions and their students. Eddinger described federal dollars as “patching a hole.” Ellis outlined how temporary funding from the federal CARES Act allowed Northern Essex Community College to create its Student Ambassadors program, which pays students to serve as peer mentors for students identified as at risk of not persisting. Aquino elaborated on her experience as a Student Ambassador, stating that part of the program’s success comes from its recognition that students benefit from persistent communication and various modes of outreach. García of Texas added that her Center for Community College Student Engagement found that students in danger of not persisting—such as men of color, one of the sector’s most vulnerable groups—felt most connected to their institutions when professors and staff knew their names, helped them establish a long-term plan for their time at the community college, and identified potential barriers to their success. Eddinger remarked on a temporary program at Bunker Hill that provided a small stipend to students in addition to covering tuition and fees, noting, “We realized that it’s not about being able to pay for school. It’s about being able to pay for life.” All of these proven interventions require investing more dollars into community colleges.
4. Faced with declining enrollment, several New England states are looking at college mergers. Connecticut state Sen. Derek Slap (D-West Hartford), who chairs the state’s Higher Education & Employment Advancement Committee, noted that the Legislature is moving forward with its plan to consolidate the state’s 12 community colleges into one college with multiple campuses, making it the fifth largest community college in the country. He remarked that the bill has been controversial; some stakeholders are worried that the move will erase the individuality of campuses. Additionally, New Hampshire state Sen. Jay Kahn (D-Keene) provided an update that lawmakers in New Hampshire are moving ahead with the merger of Granite State College with the University of New Hampshire. Massachusetts state Rep. Jeffrey Roy (D-Franklin) remarked that the state passed a law in 2019 offering an off-ramp to closing institutions. In the wake of sharp enrollment declines during Covid, mergers represent one method that New England states are embracing to keep public colleges afloat.
5. Every state in the region is working on various efforts to improve college access and affordability. Lawmakers at the March 14 LAC meeting told the group that the Connecticut and Massachusetts legislatures recently pursued bills that address food insecurity on college campuses. Connecticut aims to expand funding for first-time students of its free community college program with additional resources this legislative session. New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut have introduced legislation supporting student mental health on college campuses. Massachusetts Rep. Patricia Haddad (D-Bristol), the NEBHE chair, discussed the Legislature’s push to expand college access to students with developmental disabilities and autism. The Massachusetts and Connecticut legislative representatives also remarked on their states’ student-debt reimbursement initiatives, which would primarily focus on loan forgiveness for human services and healthcare workers.
Look for similar themes around the region in NEBHE’s Legislative Session Summary report outlining current postsecondary and workforce development bills in the six New England states.
Rachael Conway is a NEBHE policy and research consultant who manages the LAC.