Equity and Success for Online Community College Students

Like all institutions across the country — and the world — North Carolina’s community colleges have faced unprecedented challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted higher education in March of this year. But these institutions have risen to the occasion to ensure student success and create learning environments that promote equity among students.

Graphic with quote from Susan Barbitta.Susan Barbitta, executive director of NC Student Success Center (NC SSC), and Lisa Chapman, president of Central Carolina Community College (CCCC), recently joined Sherri Hughes, assistant vice president of professional learning at the American Council on Education (ACE) for a conversation on how the state is adjusting to online teaching and striving to achieve student equity during this uncertain time.

The discussion was part of the Conversations on Student Success series, produced by ACUE and ACE.

Key takeaways from their conversation

Leveraging System-level Support

Barbitta, who leads one of 16 student success centers nationwide, described her role in “helping colleges connect the dots within their own campus and across the state.” In an effort to serve colleges and support students, she said, it’s essential for student success centers to provide resources to address equity challenges, especially now.

The NCSSC serves 58 colleges across the North Carolina Community College System (the System).

Given how many faculty had little to no experience teaching online, the center realized they needed to take a pedagogical approach to ensure faculty were prepared to teach effectively and inclusively. 

Barbitta and her team decided to partner with ACUE. “The data was what led us to make this decision,” Barbitta said, pointing to how institutions, such as Broward College, had improved completion rates, particularly among Black and Pell-eligible populations, after partnering with ACUE. She also noted that faculty who had previously completed ACUE courses spoke highly of the program. 

“They were learning tangible activities they could embed in their courses immediately. That made the decision to move forward with ACUE easy.”

With support of the Every Learner Everywhere (ELE) initiative Achieving the Dream (ATD), the Center enrolled in July 2020 nearly 100 faculty across North Carolina’s community colleges in ACUE’s microcredential course, “Creating an Inclusive and Supportive Online Learning Environment.”

So far, Barbitta said, the program has been a success. “We’ve received several unsolicited emails about how helpful faculty are finding the course,” she noted.

In fact, early success prompted the NC System to scale the program—they added 18 additional cohorts of faculty across the system, now reaching well over 500 faculty members and tens of thousands of students.

Barbitta hopes that participating faculty will share the knowledge they’ve learned from ACUE with their colleagues to “disseminate the information more broadly.”

Chapman, meanwhile, noted that CCCC was developed historically as a vocational/technical school. Like across the NC System, while many program areas  had a strong online presence, there were a number of faculty who had no experience teaching online when the pandemic forced the college to turn to emergency remote instruction.

Chapman knew the college needed support to provide professional development to those faculty. “Serving in a system works best if you leverage the power of that system,” she added.

When they had the opportunity to participate in ACUE’s microcredential on effective online teaching, faculty across disciplines — cosmetology, criminal justice, nursing, broadcasting, EMS, and many others — were eager to join.

“I have such great admiration for the way our faculty were willing to adapt,” Chapman said. She noted that those faculty have been communicating with their colleagues. “That’s one of the powers of the ACUE model — folks are leading and modeling the instruction. We clearly see that people are appreciating this opportunity.”

Chapman also emphasized the importance of providing professional development opportunities that faculty can put to use while they’re still learning. “You don’t want something they have to wait to implement.”

Ensuring Equitable Outcomes

Barbitta emphasized that the need for best practices in online teaching and strategies for achieving equity is more apparent than ever before.

Chapman emphasized that sentiment. “[Ensuring equity throughout higher education] has become more important as we see what’s happening with the pandemic,” Chapman said. Central Carolina has implemented a 2020-2024 Strategic Plan. “We have a vision of exceptional learning for all.”

During the Q&A portion of the webinar, a participant asked about the unique challenges of community colleges with regard to online teaching. 

“A large percentage of students we serve are students that don’t have the resources they need to switch to different types of modalities,” Chapman said. She described how most community college students prioritize education but also have multiple, often competing priorities, including work and family.

Barbitta added that commuter students have particular challenges, as they often rely on the library or student center for resources like laptops and wifi.

In today’s learning environment, faculty are the most consistent, and sometimes only, connection, a student has with the college. The NC SSC is optimistic about the impact they’re able to make by developing faculty to teach online with evidence-based teaching practices proven to lead to stronger levels of academic achievement regardless of race, ethnicity and income level.

“What Keeps You Up at Night?”

Chapman said that first and foremost, she is concerned for faculty and students’ safety. She also wonders what they can do differently to help serve students.

“I hope we can help our faculty and staff understand the obstacles we’re facing and empower them with skills to help students overcome that and address the educational divide,” Barbitta agreed.

In terms of advice they’d give to other faculty and educators as they navigate these challenges, both Barbitta and Chapman urged institutions to support the faculty who are most uncomfortable with the move online to increase their comfort — and encourage faculty to support one another.

“Most of the time I’m seeking the advice of so many of my colleagues,” Chapman said. “Clearly, we can get even better, so let’s not lose that momentum. It doesn’t set us up for failure; it sets us up with an opportunity for improvement.”

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