Teachers College, Columbia University

Catastrophe or Catalyst? Reflections on COVID’s Impact on Community Colleges

Catastrophe or Catalyst? Reflections on COVID’s Impact on Community Colleges

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a steep decline in enrollments at community colleges, especially among Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous populations, males, and part-time students. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Acts provided funds for emergency aid and engaging disconnected students, and community colleges moved swiftly to shift services and instruction online. This essay discusses how students and community colleges responded to the pandemic and what their experiences reveal about inequities in higher education. The authors argue that the crisis was worsened by years of underinvestment in these institutions and by entrenched structures and practices that do not address the needs and aspirations of many students. They review evidence on reforms that aim to remake community colleges in ways that improve student outcomes. While COVID-19 can rightly be viewed as a catastrophe, it may also serve as a catalyst for fundamental and lasting improvements in how community colleges are funded, organized, and operated to help more students achieve their goals.

This essay appears in the Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, volume 1, issue 2.