Day Three: ACCT Leadership Congress Explores COVID-Fueled ‘Paradox,’ Other Challenges

Despite Challenges, Students Have High Confidence in Value of Community Colleges

October 8, 2020

As the 2020 ACCT Leadership Congress continued virtually for its third day on Wednesday, a keynote speaker challenged community college leaders to consider the “paradox” of Americans needing education and training more than ever in the wake of the pandemic even as higher education enrollments continue to fall.

Drawing from surveys of more than 350,000 Americans over the past four years, Strada Education Network’s Carol D’Amico highlighted confounding trends: Nearly half of all Americans (46 percent) believe they need more education, particularly if their work has been disrupted by the pandemic, but at the same time, community college enrollment is down 7.5 percent this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. 

“If the interest is there, why hasn’t it translated into an actual increase in college enrollments?” asked D’Amico, Strada’s executive vice president for national engagement and philanthropy. 

D'Amico noted that among those who are enrolled, 74% of community college students and 50% of four-year college students believe their educations will be worth the cost — demonstrating the perceived value of community colleges and opportunities for institutions to communicate their value.

Even as the pandemic has disrupted the lives of nearly half of all working Americans, the percentages of aspiring students who believe education is a good value and will help them get a good job fell sharply between 2019 and 2020, D’Amico said. In addition, cost is no longer the primary barrier to enrollment, with larger percentages of Americans citing time and logistics and self-doubt as impediments. And just one-third of adults without degrees reported having a positive experience with their last education, she said.

“If only one-third of your customers had a good experience, it’s a challenge to get them back,” D’Amico said. “You combine that negative experience with self-doubt and a lack of understanding of what it will take to be successful, and time, logistics, and money, and you’ve got a formula for why people might not be enthusiastic.”

D’Amico stressed the growing preference for nondegree programs—up from 50 to 68 percent in the last year—to help address immediate career needs while still allowing students to progress towards a degree over the long run. While community colleges offer a wide range of nondegree programs, they can be difficult to navigate and don’t show clear links to careers. “They don’t understand if what they want is readily available or…what it will get them in the end,” she says. 

Community college leaders should focus on simplifying enrollment processes and strengthening advising and career counseling so students clearly see the immediate value of programs, D’Amico said. “What are we really doing to help people see that if you take this pathway there is an opportunity for a real job in your community that is going to help you pay the bills, not some theoretical job,” she said. “That's what that's what consumers are looking for: what is going to be the payoff, what is going to be the value—not some theoretical value, but real value that they can actually see and understand in a timeframe that makes sense to them.“

Also Wednesday, Congress attendees celebrated 22 exemplary community college trustees, equity programs, chief executive officers, faculty members, and professional board staff members who were recognized with 2020 ACCT Regional Awards. One outstanding award recipient in each category will be announced virtually during the Annual ACCT Association Awards presentation on Thursday, October 8 from 12:30pm - 1:30pm. And Phi Theta Kappa recognized the boards of four institutions for its Board of Trustee Awards: Fulton-Montgomery Community College, the Austin Community College District in Texas, Pearl River Community College in Mississippi, and MiraCosta College in California.

20 concurrent educational sessions were presented in Wednesday, including sessions by Pamila Fisher, Ed.D., a former community college chancellor, and David Rutledge, a former longtime trustee from Washtenaw Community College and former member of the ACCT Board of Directors, both of whom co-authored chapters in the forthcoming second edition of Trusteeship in Community Colleges: A Guide for Effective Governance. In addition to governance-related education, concurrent sessions addressed topics ranging from student food and housing insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic to how community colleges can bridge the labor skills gap, non-academic barriers for rural community college students, how colleges can support students who are parents, and ACCT's new Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Checklist and Implementation Guide for Community College Boards.

The day concluded with a dynamic evening cooking demonstration by the Joliet Junior College Culinary Arts Program, whose graduates have gone on to earn Michelin stars. The demonstration included a dynamic chocolate sculpture as well as the creation of an ACCT Leadership Congress ice sculpture.

More than 1,000 community college leaders are participating in this year’s Congress, which was re-envisioned as a virtual event focused on the exchange of critical information and ideas on successful new models, innovations, programs, as well as active networking with community college leaders from across the country. In addition to the keynote presentation, day three featured 20 concurrent sessions that addressed topics ranging from supporting student parents and rural community college students during the pandemic to board leadership and providing virtual services.

All 2020 ACCT Leadership Congress sessions, including general sessions and all 60 concurrent sessions, will be available for on-demand viewing by live participants beginning October 12.

The ACCT Leadership Congress continues online with more than 60 virtual sessions through the end of today. For more information, visit http://congress.acct.org. Search #ACCT2020 on Twitter for more from the event.