Pa. community colleges hope remote learning, fast degree programs will lure students amid pandemic

"Thirty percent of our credits were earned in the online space, and it was the fastest growing segment of our enrollment.”

  • Sam Dunklau

(Harrisburg) — Pennsylvania college students are grappling with how to continue to work toward their degrees amid COVID-19. But the head of a community colleges advocacy group is arguing those institutions are a viable option this fall as the coronavirus plagues the commonwealth.

Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, estimates the commonwealth’s higher education system has so far lost at least $100 million due to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has disrupted everything, and higher education was not exempt from that disruption,” Bolden said during an event on Facebook Live, hosted by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

Nearly all activities on college campuses were interrupted during the spring semester, and colleges and universities are expecting fewer students will enroll during the fall. Plus, before the pandemic, WHYY reported experts were predicting a 16 percent drop in Pennsylvania college enrollments.

But despite those challenges, Bolden said community colleges in particular are ready to take students, especially in a pandemic-riddled world.

“They were so active in the online space prior to the pandemic. Nearly 86,000 students take an online course from a community college every year. 30 percent of our credits were earned in the online space, and it was the fastest growing segment of our enrollment.”

Many students still haven’t made up their minds about whether to go back to school.

Bolden says she hopes remote learning, and new protections designed to keep in-person students safe, will be enough to entice them to stay the course.

The state’s preliminary guidance since June has been to allow colleges to proceed with limited in-person learning so long as they’re in a county that’s been designated yellow according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased reopening plan.

Aiming to keep those students safe, Bolden said Pennsylvania community colleges have received $6.5 million in state funding to buy masks, and set up plexiglass shields and reorganize classrooms.

“As we move to increased levels of remote learning in the fall, with the exception of face-to-face instruction for those programs for which it’s really important, community colleges deliver a high quality product,” Bolden said.

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