COVID-19 is taking community out of rural Colorado’s community colleges

Jul 24, 2020

The main Pueblo Community College (PCC) campus, serves students in Pueblo County. Locally, Pueblo Community College Southwest (pictured) serves Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties. Its main campus is located in the town of Mancos. Through a partnership between PCC and Durango School District 9-R, PCC has relocated its classes to the Durango High School campus.
Credit Mark Duggan/KSUT

LA JUNTA, Colo. — Otero Junior College President Timothy Alvarez describes his leadership style as “MBWA,” management by walking around.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made that nearly impossible for the rural college leader who now mostly works from home. Instead of finding a faculty member or student to chat with on a stroll around the La Junta campus, Alvarez is working remotely, which he says has been kind of maddening. 

He and other community college presidents in southeastern Colorado are grappling with how to make their campuses accommodating for students, who are more likely to be first-generation college students, lower-income and non-white, than at four-year universities. 

It’s one of several things Alvarez said worries him about the upcoming fall semester.

For small, rural colleges, the future is uncertain. 

Alvarez said his staff is planning four different scenarios for the fall semester: a normal semester with in-person classes, totally remote for the whole semester, starting the semester remote, and transitioning back to in-person and vice versa. 

Lamar Community College President Linda Lujan and Pueblo Community College Patty Erjavec are also pondering different possibilities their respective campuses could face come August. Wrapped up in all that uncertainty is how to meet the needs of students who may face significant economic hardship because of the pandemic, rethinking how to teach hands-on trade classes and how to keep the already steady downward enrollment trend from accelerating.

Alvarez said the pandemic will be a defining moment for community colleges. There’s no looking back now. 

Cultivating a Culture

“A major portion of learning experience happens outside of the classroom: with leadership, athletics, in residence halls, in a number of areas. And our students may not get that now,” Alvarez said. “I think about how we create these connections with students, this sense of pride when they may never come to campus.”

This spring he said most of OJC’s student body already had a community. They would come to a physical classroom and many students lived in on-campus housing and participated in sports. 

Now he worries about the 18-year-old student starting in the fall who has never stepped foot on campus, who doesn’t have family that has attended college and who doesn’t have any expectation of the learning experience. 

About two-thirds of the student body at OJC are first-generation, Alvarez said. One-third identify as Hispanic and nearly all students are from Otero or surrounding counties. A lot of students are low-income. In Alvarez’s experience, a physical college campus and the ability to network and interact with others is crucial for those students who might not otherwise attend college.

“If a student isn’t coming to our campus, how do we help them have a defining moment?” is a question Alvarez said he finds himself pondering a lot these days. He’s not sure exactly what that solution is now.

He’s looking at creating cohorts, maybe. It’s not set in stone yet, but Alvarez said he imagines some kind of remote pod of students based on discipline, so at least there would be some type of interaction among students.

Keeping students engaged has been a big focus for Erjavec at PCC, too, especially as a vast majority of students — about 95% — receive federal aid to attend the college. 

PCC received approximately $1.8 million in CARES Act money. A lot of that was given directly to students for necessities like rent, daycare for their children, and utilities. 

“We helped them out in that way because there were students who had to withdraw because they had no other choice. Kids were out of school and some of our students couldn’t balance going to school themselves and homeschooling,” Erjavec said. “Some students lost their jobs. We also have been awarded grants for students who did have to withdraw who want to return in the fall.”

To keep students from dropping out, PCC has waived some student fees in hopes those can aid basic needs.

“We’re trying to be very, very sensitive to our student’s needs,” she said.

Reaching Students Remotely

While state and federal lawmakers have spent near decades trying to tether rural parts of the country to fast and reliable internet, community colleges say reaching remote students in the age of coronavirus and remote learning isn’t one that is new to them. They’ve had to adapt to reach students who maybe live 20, 30, or 50 miles away. 

“Even before the pandemic, PCC really had a strategic plan to utilize technology in a way that really was embedded in our ideals of teaching and learning. Pueblo Community College also services the Cañon City and southwest corner of the state, a very large service area,” Erjavec said. “Especially in the southwest corner, we have great student needs but not all in one place.”

There are of course barriers to broadband, but short of literally moving mountains, Erjavec said PCC has done mostly all it can to keep students connected to the campus. Nearly all students have devices when they start school, so keeping them connected hasn’t a big roadblock.

In Lamar, remote learning is also happening at various hubs because broadband can be a challenge. Learning expansion sites, as the college has dubbed them, have popped up across eastern Colorado, in Eads, Lamar, Granada, and Springfield.

“The broadband issue is a real issue because not only do we have the last mile problem, the farmhouse maybe doesn’t have great broadband, but we also have the middle mile problems where broadband is not as strong as other areas or is cost-prohibitive,” Linda Lujan, president of Lamar Community College, said. 

Being able to adapt quickly has been a strength and asset throughout the pandemic so far.

“We did it (went remote) within a couple of weeks,” Alvarez said. “Sometimes you have to be forced.”

As community colleges have excelled in teaching trades, like nursing and welding, there’s still a lot of on-going discussion on how to keep those programs successful. So far, the plan is wearing masks, lots of cleaning, and social distancing as much as possible.

At PCC, offering students the option to take most classes online will hopefully decrease the number of students on campus enough to keep classrooms safe.

Opportunity for Growth

Despite the unprecedented challenges, community colleges also see an opportunity in the pandemic.

Martha Pharam, the spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said if past economic downturns are any indication, community colleges might see slight upticks in enrollment, although numbers have been trending downward in Colorado since at least 2014.

“Community college is about one-third of the price, so it makes more sense financially to go to a community college,” she said. 

In Colorado, community colleges are bracing for a much different reality. The Colorado Community College System is predicting a nearly 9% drop in enrollment across the state.

Still, rural college presidents are holding onto some hope.

Alvarez said OJC received 200 applications for the school’s nursing program this coming fall. It can only accommodate 80. The school is looking into adding two additional instructors to bolster the program.

Lujan said she’s also heard from some out-of-state parents feel that a more rural school would be a safer environment for students because the communities are smaller, more remote from big city hotspots and there’s a perception that the spread of the virus might be less.

The trio of presidents is also keen on marketing the idea that local is a great option when the future is uncertain. If remote is going to be the norm, why pay more, especially when each of the college’s guarantees credits will transfer to four-year universities in Colorado?

The catch-22, of course, is that students may think it a better time to attend a big-name university if learning is remote.

“The expectations change now. We got a pass in the spring because we were forced into it. Students are going to be more consumer-oriented,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to make sure we have relevant and rigorous coursework.”

That means community colleges will have to be as nimble as ever to attract students.

“Shame on us if we go back to being the same campus that we were before,” he said.

This story was written in partnership with Pueblo Pulp, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.