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Post-pandemic, will community college students continue to choose online education?

Credit: Louis Freedberg

Laney College’s central courtyard is largely deserted even as colleges reopen for in-person instruction as many students opt for online classes.

Unlike nearly every other educational institution in California, where students are now almost all back in person, California’s community colleges provide a dramatic — and ominous — contrast.

In addition to declining enrollment, the majority of students at many if not most community colleges across the state who have decided to return to school prefer to study remotely, or at least in a hybrid format.

For these students, who tend to be older, working, and often parents — even grandparents — distance learning is the only way they can be in college. For many of them, considerable research shows that the lack of face-to-face interaction will make their success less likely.

Changing student preferences were on display at three colleges I recently visited in the Oakland area, all of which are part of the Peralta Community College district. They were practically deserted.

At Laney College in Oakland, a large banner in the central courtyard read “Laney Students: The Heart and Soul of Campus,” alongside bright photos of student activities, many of which now hang.

The pews under the banner were empty. It was hard to find a student anywhere in the places you would normally see them, except for the occasional student attending lab classes or others that require in-person instruction.

On a recent Monday, Merritt College, high in the hills of Oakland, the main parking lot in front of the state-of-the-art Barbara Lee Science and Allied Health building was nearly empty.

The library, which is only open Tuesday through Thursday, was sealed off by a large roll-up security gate, a bewildering sight on any college campus.

Merritt College President David Johnson said his college plans to have 50% of classes taught in person and 50% remotely this semester — a big jump from the fall when most classes were still in session. online, as they were throughout the college system.

But it didn’t happen that way. Merritt professors were ready to return, but many more students signed up for online classes, forcing the college to pivot based on their preferences. About two-thirds of classes are being offered remotely this semester, Johnson says. Come fall, college leaders hope at least half of classes will be offered in person, but it’s not yet clear if that will happen.

“In terms of success, I think it’s better for students to be on campus, but if they don’t come, the question is what’s next,” asked Tom Renbarger, professor of physics and president of the academic senate of the college.

What’s happening is that students who in the past had no choice but to come to campus have been given a full dose of distance learning – and are now eagerly embracing it as their preferred option.

Distance learning is now the choice of a growing number of community college students, who tend to be older, working, and often parents or even grandparents.

That’s certainly the case for Leesa Hogan, a Merritt student trying to earn a degree in child development and then transfer to a California State University campus. She is one of two student members of the Peralta District Board of Trustees.

Forty-four years old, she is actually a grandmother who works full-time at the Oakland School District attendance office. For her, taking distance learning courses is the only way to be in college. “If I hadn’t had the opportunity to take classes at home, I wouldn’t have been able to take them at all,” she says.

Like Hogan, Noa Meister, a 22-year-old student at Berkeley City College, part of Peralta’s four-college district, also chose online education. Convenience trumps everything else, she said.

“It’s really nice to have personal autonomy over my schedule,” she said. “It’s good to take a break whenever I want, and not be in one place at a certain time, and be stuck there all day.”

Hogan, who lives in a student co-op adjoining the UC Berkeley campus, says there’s no compelling reason to go to the City College campus, which is located in a building in downtown Berkeley. Before the pandemic, she said, “there was always stuff going on, with clubs, events and College Days.” Now, she says, “it’s definitely deserted.”

She goes to the library from time to time. But when she went there recently, “I was the first person there,” she said. “And I was one of three students when I left.”

But it remains to be seen how she and other students who choose the online option will end up doing so. “Online classes generally perform worse for students than in-person classes,” concluded a recent review from the Brookings Institution.

A pre-pandemic study conducted at California Community Colleges showed that students who took classes online were less likely to complete them or had lower grades than students who took the exact same classes in person.

It is presumably best for students to be in college, regardless of the mode of instruction. Yet, students who study at a distance need great discipline to pursue their studies. They may not have a quiet place to study, they may not have a reliable internet connection, or they may not have the personal connections that securely connect them to the culture of a campus. .

Sheressa Jackson, 46, re-enrolled at Merritt, this time taking distance learning. But she admits that online education isn’t for everyone. “It’s an adjustment,” said Jackson, an Oakland native who now lives in the Central Valley — and works full time. “I’ve done in person, I’ve done online, and online takes more effort. You have to set those time slots, especially when you’re working. You have to be organized. You have to be self-sufficient.”

The big question is whether this big shift to distance learning, accelerated by a strong labor market that provides more students with full-time, better-paying jobs, is permanent.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of the 116 community college system, thinks so. “I don’t see our students going back to the one-size-fits-all approach they’re used to at our colleges,” he said.

The answer can’t simply be to provide more online classes, says Jennifer Shanoski, a Merritt chemistry professor and full-time president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, which represents nearly 1,000 faculty members.

To engage students, online instruction will need to be supplemented with face-to-face services, she says. These could include assigning students a mentor who will contact them weekly, offering online or walk-in counseling and tutoring and more extensive childcare.

Some colleges are already moving in these directions. But, Oakley said, “it’s really going to force us to accelerate these innovations,” especially when it comes to providing varying degrees of blended instruction. “The trends we identify are not going to suddenly reverse.”

The reaction of community colleges, the foundation of California’s famous higher education system, will have far-reaching consequences for millions of students and for the future of the state.

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Louis Freedberg, former executive director of EdSource, is a veteran journalist and education analyst in California.

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