Two-year colleges ramp up off-campus outreach

Looking to offset enrollment declines, address student needs exacerbated by the pandemic, and build relationships across their region, two-year colleges are establishing off-campus “community classrooms” that meet students and residents where they live.

According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community colleges saw enrollment decrease by roughly 10 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020, followed by more declines in spring 2021. Amid the strains of the pandemic, institutions also have become acutely aware of barriers to learning—for instance, financial hurdles or gaps in transportation and child care.

While community colleges have a long tradition of supporting their local communities, experts say the current environment has sparked a new wave of off-campus initiatives aimed at increasing access to classes, academic support, and other resources. “I do see an acceleration of those types of outreach activities happening now,” Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, told Inside Higher Ed.

Community classrooms boost local presence

Wallace State Community College in Alabama has plans to open a community learning center 45 minutes away from campus in Arley, a rural, low-income town with approximately 330 residents. Students in the area have struggled with remote learning because of limited internet access.

Related: What if all community colleges took Perimeter’s approach to student belonging? >

Scheduled to open in January, the center will have classrooms and computer labs, offering students and residents a direct line to the college’s services and workforce training opportunities close to home.

In a recent roundtable hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College in Texas, highlighted community colleges’ essential role in meeting local workforce needs. “We are going to have to position ourselves as leaders in our local communities,” he said.

Related: How one college uncovers student needs beyond the classroom >

Community College of Beaver County in Pennsylvania is teaming up with local libraries to host classes off campus. The community classrooms, set to launch in October, will allow first-year students to take their freshman orientation and introductory writing courses close to home. The college also will provide onsite childcare for students.

“I firmly believe that we have to meet people where they are, and based on the pandemic, things have changed, so we have to find ways to supply those resources for others,” Anitre Bell, the college’s community liaison and assistant director of outreach, told Inside Higher Ed.

Nonprofit and educational leaders hope the increased community presence will help students feel better-connected to their colleges. “These community places are really important because so many of our students don’t have a sense of identity as a college student and a college campus is a strange environment, but they may have been visiting a public library since they were children,” Stout said. “…[I]f we’re able to meet prospective students in that environment, we can create a stronger sense of connection to the college.”

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