The global pandemic has forced higher education institutions to rapidly shift to virtual learning models, develop protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, and find new ways to support students in an uncertain fiscal environment. Independent, nonprofit colleges play a critical role in providing four-year degrees to California’s students. We spoke with Kristen Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities (AICCU), about how the pandemic is affecting these institutions.
PPIC: Higher education institutions have had to adapt quickly to a virtual environment. How is the nonprofit college sector handling this change?
KRISTEN SOARES: Our main concern is how to serve our students well during these challenging times. When the pandemic started, we shut down even before the state did, to protect the health and safety of our students and faculty. Switching to teaching courses fully online has entailed a lot of work. We’ve adapted very quickly—investing in support systems to meet our students’ need for online learning and to help our faculty make the switch.
The big question is how many students we can safely bring back next term, because some students need to be on campus to succeed, whether due to lack of access to high-speed internet, their home situation isn’t conducive to online classrooms, or the student is experiencing homelessness. And we have all heard of the mental health challenges that some students have, which this pandemic has exacerbated. We’re very focused on bringing back a small set of students on campus next term to ensure they have the safe, healthy environment they need to succeed.
PPIC: How has the pandemic affected the institutions you represent?
KS: To understand the impact, we surveyed our institutions in September. Responses represented more than 90% of enrollment. They show overall a 7% decline in enrollment at our institutions compared to 2019.
There’s also been more “summer melt”—which is when students commit to coming in fall but then choose not to attend or defer for a year. We see more summer melt in the liberal arts schools. And institutions with a strong online education presence before have had a lower drop in enrollment compared to more traditional in-person campuses.
PPIC: Ensuring equitable access and success for students of all backgrounds has been a focus for policymakers and institutions during the pandemic. How have California’s independent, nonprofit colleges responded to the increased need to support underrepresented, first generation, and low-income students?
KS: The students we’re trying to bring back to campus are these exact students, and the on-campus support systems really do make a difference in their success. The pandemic shone a big spotlight on the fact that having fast, reliable internet is access to learning.
We have to solve this problem. And it’s not just about more laptops for students. We’ve scrambled to find digital access and hotspots for our students. We opened our campus parking lots so students could sit in their cars and use campus wifi. Going forward, we have to be much more thoughtful about addressing the digital divide. Opening campuses with strict health and safety protocols to this group of students is key to ensuring disadvantaged students can continue to learn and succeed.
PPIC: What policy changes could help students and institutions during this difficult time?
KS: Higher education is an important driver of the economy, providing training, research, and other public services, and we all pay the price when our community colleges and universities are financially struggling. I’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of financial support our students are going to need, and how federal relief funding—like through the CARES act—can be used to support our students. We’re also going to need General Fund support to help our institutions recover.
We need changes at all levels of our educational system to improve enrollment of Black, Latino, and Native American students. Part of that is a stronger Cal Grant on the state level and Pell Grant on the federal level, but we also need investments in support systems on our campuses.
We should also take this opportunity to reevaluate licensure and credentialing requirements of students. Since the pandemic, the governor has provided much needed flexibility to some of these requirements to ensure the pipeline of teachers, nurses, mental health and social work providers remains strong. This is an opportunity to see whether students can do as well with fewer barriers.