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OP-ED: Tidewater Community College offers hope in crisis

We are amidst an unsettling time when, every day, headlines remind us of soaring unemployment as more businesses close their doors because of COVID-19. Economists expect there will be a recession, if not a depression.

It is at times like this that community colleges offer hope. Across Virginia, our community colleges are open. Classes are in session in a variety of remote formats, and students are enrolling for the summer and fall terms. With the abrupt conclusion of the high school year, we are welcoming seniors from the class of 2020 who are eager to start their college careers. We welcome anyone of any age who is looking to complete their college education, find a new career or earn a credential.

According to our own Virginia Community College System research, for every 1% increase in the unemployment rate, community college enrollment goes up 2%. During the Great Recession a decade ago, as the American economy collapsed, the share of full-time community college students increased from about 41% to 43% nationwide, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges.

As with community colleges around the country, Tidewater Community College stepped up by expanding programs and capacity to meet employer demands and students’ needs. We opened the Regional Health Professions Center in Virginia Beach, a state-of-the-art Regional Automotive Center in Chesapeake, and we relocated our Portsmouth campus to a more accessible area to serve residents in that city.

The challenges moving forward more than a decade later in the world of COVID-19 are different. I am confident that community colleges are equipped to handle these new challenges. As one of my colleagues said recently, “We were ready then, and we’re ready now.”

Throughout their 60 years of existence, community colleges have demonstrated that they are nimble and innovative, responding rapidly to regional and local employer needs. We remain committed to student success regardless of the external environment.

Here are some examples from TCC:

Like most colleges, TCC demonstrated flexibility by quickly pivoting from face-to-face to online and remote instruction. We have learned a great deal about the technological demands and have confronted the reality of the digital divide. You cannot learn remotely if you do not have a computer or WI-FI, a challenge faced by many of our students. Our Computers for Student Success program is working to distribute free desktop and laptop computers with WI-FI cards to students without compromising the health and safety of students or staff.

For now, placement testing has been waived because students cannot come to campuses to take the tests. If your high school senior is adrift with schools closed, TCC advisors will work to ensure they are appropriately placed in classes.

Community colleges offer the best hope for adults who have no or some college credits to retrain, retool and re-enter the workforce. Anyone can start at TCC using online or virtual resources, which include the application, advising and financial aid assistance.

Of course, community colleges remain an affordable option, which is an important consideration for many during this critical time. Three out of five students leave TCC without any student debt, in part due to our low tuition costs. In addition to financial aid, TCC has dozens of scholarships available. We anticipate additional federal dollars weighted toward Pell-eligible students thanks to the recent passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Flexibility will be the hallmark of “a new normal” at Virginia’s Community Colleges. This crisis has shown us how to reduce and eliminate barriers to student enrollment, and how to provide a greater range of instructional and service methods. Community colleges are here to serve. I know the present is tough, but I am also confident that the future — your future — is bright.

Marcia Conston is president of Tidewater Community College.