What If All of Our Wildest Dreams Come True?

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U.S. community colleges are getting a lot of attention of late. It may be that the nation will soon fund community college attendance similarly to how it has funded high schools in the last century. This has been an issue for the Obama administration for some time.1 The American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Community College Trustees have come together to support President Obama's College Promise Campaign.2 Funding higher education overall has also become a presidential campaign issue for both Democrats and Republicans.3 Although there still seems to be some disagreement about whether public higher education in general should be free, both political parties appear to support making community college attendance a no-cost proposal for students. A number of states are already moving in this direction: Oregon, Minnesota, and Tennessee have passed legislation; Oklahoma, New York, Maine, and Illinois have legislation pending.4

The national conversation on college cost and value is continuously escalating. The current level of student debt nationally is over $1.3 trillion dollars and growing at a rate of more than $2,700 per second.5 Students, their families, and political leaders are demanding a solution to the high cost of postsecondary education and subsequent high student debt.

At the same time, the demand for college-educated individuals in the workforce has never been higher. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects that the U.S. economy will need five million more individuals in the workforce with a bachelor's degree by the year 2020. The Public Policy Institute of California projects that California alone will need over one million more bachelor-degreed individuals in the state workforce by the year 2030. Most significantly, the Lumina Foundation projects that by 2025, more than 60 percent of Americans will need a college education—a goal that Lumina predicts the nation will fall short of by nearly twenty million degrees and certificates. Regardless of which indicator proves to be most accurate, the demand is extraordinary and unprecedented.6

Whether the political winds blow in favor of reducing costs for students or increasing the qualifications of the national workforce—or both—the likelihood is very high that a significant change in the way the United States funds community colleges, and higher education in general, is imminent.

So, what if all of our wildest dreams come true, flooding the nation's community colleges with students heavily subsidized by state governments or the federal government? Do community colleges have the capacity to serve this deluge of students? What might this mean for the infrastructure of our institutions?

  • Would our classrooms be prepared and equipped to serve more students? Given typical IT staff levels and current classroom utilization levels, staff are already challenged to keep instructional facilities maintained and updated. If classroom utilization levels increase by 10 or 20 percent, will they continue to function effectively? Will we have the capability to keep classrooms current technologically? Optimizing Educational Technology is identified in the top 5 (#5 for associate institutions, #2 overall) of the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues for 2016.7
  • Do the numerous information systems we use to support students have the capacity to serve hundreds or thousands of new students? Can administrative systems handle substantially higher demand at peak periods such as registration? Have we adequately licensed instructional systems such as the LMS to provide access to a potentially much larger student population? Associate institutions identified E-learning and Online Education as the #7 issue, whereas the higher education community overall ranked this as #10 in the 2016 Top 10 IT Issues.
  • On a typical college campus, the network infrastructure is often already oversaturated—particularly the wireless network. With hundreds or thousands of additional students coming to campus and bringing with them an average of three mobile devices each, are we capable of accelerating our plans for expanding and upgrading our network infrastructure to accommodate a tidal wave of new students and their data-hungry devices? Developing a secure network and effective security policies—Information Security—wins the spot as #1 among IT Issues for both associate institutions and the higher education community overall.
  • What about instructional support spaces such as libraries, computer labs, tutoring centers, and student unions? All of these spaces will be impacted by a significant influx of students. We may have few options to physically expand these facilities quickly, but technology can virtually expand these facilities nearly overnight. Have we made the appropriate infrastructure investments to rapidly ramp up these services through technology? Do our IT organizations have effective working relationships with our academic and student support colleagues to expand the virtual instructional support environment in meaningful and manageable ways? All segments of higher education identified Student Success Technologies in the top 5 of the 2016 IT Issues (#2 for associate institutions, #3 overall).

Given these challenges and this environment of change, it is certainly noteworthy that in the EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues for 2016, Change Management appears on the list for associate institutions, but not on the overall list. Conversely, IT Organizational Development has a spot on the overall EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list for 2016 but did not make the top 10 on the associate institutions' list.

The idea of free community college tuition is attractive to many Americans. For students who have struggled with finding ways to pay for postsecondary education, free tuition appears to be the key to unlocking their dreams. However, tuition typically covers only a fraction of the cost of educating a student. Are community colleges, state governments, or the federal government prepared to make additional investments to meet this new level of student demand?

These challenges do not stop at the boundaries, physical or virtual, of the community colleges. Nationally, 80 percent of community college students are seeking a bachelor's degree and 25 percent of community college graduates transfer to a four-year school within five years.8 If a community college education is suddenly free for students, a four-year degree is now also dramatically more affordable. A greater number of currently enrolled community college students are likely to seek to transfer. A typical percentage of the new students who would arrive under a free community college system would also likely seek to transfer. Are four-year institutions prepared to accept the subsequent deluge of transfer students?

A Call to Action

My colleagues at community colleges: We will have to be better prepared than ever to employ the most creative solutions to support a student population we may never have seen before. This may include advocating for investment in technology in new ways. If we allow ourselves to get blindsided by this, the results may be devastating. Clearly this is a concern for all of higher education, since IT Funding Models is a prominent issue: #3 on the associate institutions' list and #6 on the overall list.

My colleagues at four-year institutions: Don't ignore these developments by thinking these are exclusively community college challenges. A significant proportion of community colleges students will be seeking to become one of your students very soon. Are you prepared for a significant influx of upper-division students?

All of us in the higher education community: We must all—from community colleges to doctoral institutions—stand together and help each other prepare for these changes. The well-being of our students, our economy, our society, and our nation depends on it. By working collaboratively across higher education segments and systems, we can make the case for renewed public investment in the common good of a well-educated citizenry.

Notes

  1. Office of the Press Secretary, White House, "Fact Sheet: President Obama's Blueprint for Keeping College Affordable and Within Reach for All Americans," January 27, 2012.
  2. Walter G. Bumphus, "Joining Together to Move the Conversation on Tuition-Free College Forward," The EvoLLLution, October 21, 2015.
  3. The Briefing: Hillary for America: "College Compact: Costs Won't Be a Barrier"; GOP: "Renewing American Values."
  4. National Conference of State Legislatures: "Free Community College: State Action," September 10, 2015.
  5. See The Borrowers Hotline website.
  6. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Recovery 2020; Public Policy Institute of California: "Will California Run Out of College Graduates?"; Lumina Foundation: "A Stronger Nation."
  7. Susan Grajek and the 2015–2016 EDUCAUSE IT Issues Panel, "Top 10 IT Issues, 2016: Divest, Reinvest, and Differentiate," EDUCAUSE Review 51, no. 1 (January/February 2016).
  8. Davis Jenkins and John Fink, "What We Know about Transfer," Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center, January 2015.

Joseph Moreau is Vice Chancellor of Technology at Foothill–De Anza Community College District.

© 2016 Joseph Moreau. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

EDUCAUSE Review 51, no. 1 (January/February 2016)