Commentary: In dire times like what we have now, community colleges can strut their stuff

Dr. Valerie Roberson

The COVID-19 pandemic is changing how colleges deliver quality education and how institutions operate with limited or no on-campus personnel. Higher education institutions in Boston and elsewhere are making challenging decisions about how to proceed in the fall to keep their staff and their students safe, while maintaining financial viability in a health climate that is impossible to predict.

At Roxbury Community College, we plan to offer a combination of online, virtual, hybrid, and in-person classes for our students in the fall of 2020, unless conditions take a turn for the worse.

Uncertainty about whether fall classes will be able to be successfully held in-person or remotely at their school, as well as the economic challenges caused by the pandemic, have many students rethinking their educational strategy. Some who had planned to go to four-year schools may no longer have the financial means to do so.

Others may rethink taking out loans for private school tuition should classes only be offered remotely. When looking for an alternative educational option, many students and their families will be taking a fresh look at community colleges as an educational destination.  Community colleges allow students to gain the knowledge and skills they need faster, and for a lower cost, while also earning valuable, transferable credits. 

Massachusetts community colleges provided education for more than 110,000 students in the past fiscal year. We will continue to be a source for workforce training for students of all ages as Boston’s economic recovery is dependent on a skilled workforce, especially in STEM fields like health care, IT, biotechnology, and smart building technology. 

Roxbury Community College is prepared to continue offering quality college-level courses and industry-ready workforce training this fall. We must be flexible and ready to act quickly and compassionately to handle the constantly changing health landscape. The on-campus classes we are planning will be held in locations where social distancing guidelines can be properly observed. We’ve purchased masks, hand-sanitizing stations, and bottles of hand sanitizer to meet health recommendations. And we’re in constant contact with staff and students, so everyone is up to date on the latest developments.

We continue to prioritize connecting students with affordable technology for both online and in-person classes. Through RCC’s new RoxSTARS technology program, every RCC student in need of laptop will receive one, at no additional cost. In the sudden rush to make more than 350 classes available online at a moment’s notice when the COVID-19 crisis hit, we distributed more than 100 laptops and made it possible for students to access courses on smartphones. We also purchased and distributed 50 hotspots to increase student Wi-Fi access and worked with cell phone data providers to encourage them to increase data usage at no extra cost to our students.

We also have support systems in place for students, especially in communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan which have been hard hit by COVID-19 from both health and economic standpoints. Last year, over 80 percent of students at Roxbury Community College (RCC) were Pell-eligible, a figure that could rise even higher given the uncertainty about the economy. We will do whatever is necessary to keep academic costs low for students while identifying new ways to address non-academic student needs, such as food insecurity and mental health support.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on our community, and our city and state will be rebuilding for years to come.  Yet, the pandemic has allowed RCC and all community colleges to remain firm in their open-access missions and better positioned to serve a larger, more diverse population of students.  Regardless of circumstance, community colleges will always offer a quality, affordable education to anyone who wants one.

Dr. Valerie Roberson, PhD. is the president of Roxbury Community College. She has been a community college administrator for more than 30 years.