The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education is pushing the state’s 15 community colleges to plan for significantly more in-person and on-campus classes this fall to curb plunging enrollments among Black and Latino students and reengage younger learners who may be turned off by virtual classes.
But community college presidents said they need to be more flexible for their students and faculty and that a return to a prepandemic normal is unlikely.
The board voted Tuesday on a resolution that set as a principal of the fall reopening that, “all students who want or need an in-person learning experience, either full-time or part-time, will have a robust set of affordable and accessible options across all degree programs at all community colleges, especially for first-year students.”
Many public and private four-year colleges, including Boston University, the University of Massachusetts system, Northeastern University, and Harvard University, have in recent weeks announced they plan to bring most of their students back to campus this fall and offer a more traditional undergraduate experience — including full dorms, sporting events, concerts, and in-person classes — as COVID-19 vaccines become more readily available.
But community colleges have taken a more cautious approach and have announced that they will offer more in-person classes, but will also include a heavy slate of online and hybrid options.
The continued reliance on virtual classes may not work for all community college students and some higher education officials worry that it will push students away from enrolling.
“We weren’t advocating 100 percent in-person,” said Patty Eppinger, a member of state’s higher education board. “We didn’t want to lose sight of the need and value of in-person education.”
The board didn’t quantify how many more in-person classes community colleges should offer, just that they should be available to Massachusetts students who are interested.
Community colleges enroll nearly half of the students in the state’s public higher education system, many of them Black, Latino, low income, and the first in their family to go to college.
This past fall, Massachusetts community colleges saw enrollment of first-year Black and Latino students drop dramatically by one-third. Nationwide, first-year college enrollment dropped 19 percent at community colleges, with drops of nearly 30 percent among Black and Hispanic students, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Some community college presidents are skeptical that online learning is driving students away.
“The reason our enrollment is dropping is not because they don’t want to come back,” said Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College. “They are unemployed and they have kids to take care of. When the other systems are not working in the society, it is an absurdity that you would expect our enrollment would be the same.”
Bunker Hill is offering more on-campus classes this fall than it did last year, when primarily labs and technical courses were taught in-person. Before the pandemic about 5,000 of Bunker Hill’s 16,000 students took some virtual class, next fall, up to half could be involved in virtual class, Eddinger said.
Community college presidents said they are trying to be more flexible in case new COVID variants emerge and that many of their students are older adults juggling work and child care and want a variety of ways to learn. Their faculty, too, want more options on how to teach, they said.
Community colleges aren’t the same as four-year colleges, which have to worry about losing revenue if their dorm rooms are shuttered, and should be allowed to develop their own fall reopening paths, the presidents said.
Community colleges are planning to offer in-person classes, virtual classes, and a mix of both learning styles next fall, said James Mabry, the president of Middlesex Community College.
The colleges have surveyed their students and faculty and many do want choices, Mabry said.
For example, schools are planning the traditional first-year orientation in August that includes some in-person elements that would allow students to meet each other in a tent set up at the campuses, Mabry said.
“The new normal will incorporate all we have learned about remote teaching and learning,” Mabry said. “It is essential that we meet the evolving needs of our students.”
Community college leaders also said they need more state guidance on issues such as how much distance students should be kept apart in classrooms this fall.
State education officials haven’t set specific guidelines for colleges to follow in the fall and much depends on how many people get vaccinated and the course of the new variants, said James Peyser, the state’s secretary of education.
“It’s a still a moving target, so we have to do a little bit of wait-and-see before we can make a commitment on guidance,” Peyser said. “There is a hesitancy to get too far ahead of ourselves and predict what the fall will look like.”
Margaret Wong, the president of the Massachusetts Community College Council, which represents faculty and professional staff, said this past year has been a learning experience for many teachers.
Some have realized they can do more of their teaching through video-conferencing while others are eager to return to the classroom.
“No faculty wants to be forced to do one or the other,” said Wong, an English professor at Quinsigamond Community College.