Over the past month, faculty, staff and students from Colorado and the United States returned to campuses for the start of another fall semester. We had hoped that this semester would be devoted to new challenges, new opportunities and new directions. Instead, we’re faced with another semester dealing with – and sometimes at odds over – vaccines, testing, face masks, and social distancing. There is no doubt that the precautions we take and the requirements we put in place as campus leaders to make our campuses as safe as possible are a top priority. Lives are at stake. We need to be clear – and the Colorado Community College System is very clear – that the safety of our faculty, staff, and students is our top priority.
We must be equally clear about our mission, which the pandemic has not changed. It is about “providing an accessible learning environment … where our students can achieve their educational, professional and personal goals …”. Education remains the safest and best path to a more fulfilling life, but it must be accessible. For community colleges, that means it needs to be accessible to our unique student body, including single parents, first-generation students, and low-income students. We may unintentionally limit access through the requirements we put in place to respond to the pandemic, just as we would limit access if we let tuition become unaffordable or impose unnecessary admission standards. Our approach to all of these things needs to be measured, considered, and tailored to our student body.
Of course, “accessible” must also mean safe, and this is the moving target that we are constantly aiming for. If students don’t feel safe, they will stay home and forgo the opportunity to get the one thing that can best help them improve their situation: an education. For years, skeptics have suggested that a college education is not necessary for career success, or worse, that higher education will burden you with mountains of debt while not providing the skills you need to get a better job. . The pandemic amplified those voices. As signs of asking for help appear and many frontline jobs go unfilled, it is easy to think that the easy way is the right way, that investing in education is not necessary.
But history has taught us otherwise. COVID-19 is not the first pandemic, and it will not be the last. Likewise, the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19 is part of a continuing cycle of recessions. Still, the less educated are the hardest hit. Those most likely to keep their jobs and avoid the worst effects of the downturns were those with post-secondary credentials.
In fact, education is both the surest way to combat the pandemic itself and to alleviate the economic hardships of individuals. Many of our graduates are nurses, respiratory therapists and other healthcare workers at the forefront of the fight against COVID. For others who may face unemployment or underemployment as a result of the pandemic, community colleges are in the best position to help. Our colleges are open to registration (they do not “choose” who can attend); our tuition fees are low (most students graduate without going into debt); and we offer a wide range of academic and skills-based programs. Whether it’s taking a few key courses to develop an existing skill, earning a degree, or moving to a four-year college, our system is designed to serve those students with evening and weekend classes. , flexible course delivery and, most importantly, our commitment to accessibility and affordability.
As of this writing, we continue to assess our testing, masking and vaccination requirements. Some colleges and universities have adopted more stringent requirements and others less. We cannot let arguments about the rightness of a one-size-fits-all approach stifle the most important conversation. A post-secondary degree remains the best protection against job loss today and economic hardship in the future, and community colleges offer the most accessible pathways to better lives and healthier communities.
Joe Garcia is the chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. He was Lieutenant Governor of Colorado and Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education from 2011 to 2016.