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Future of Higher Education

Helping Community College Students Succeed During a Pandemic

Photo: Courtesy of Ivy Tech Community College

Dr. Sue Ellspermann, president of Ivy Tech, Indiana’s only full-fledged community college, shared how improving students’ access to course materials and technology increased success rates.

The goal of higher education is to give students the knowledge and skills they need to get and perform jobs. Because their tuition is more affordable than that of four-year universities, community colleges are a key resource for getting people from low-income backgrounds into the middle class.

“We know the vast majority of Americans are going to need a post-secondary credential to enter the middle class,” Ellspermann said. “So as we build our systems, we need to build that kind of equity to make sure higher education is accessible and our students can succeed.”

The nation’s community colleges have seen a 10 percent drop in enrollment over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat this, and meet the changing needs of students well into the future, Ellspermann and Ivy Tech have had to adapt.

“Our students needed flexibility,” Ellspermann said. “They needed technology, they needed access to the internet. Many of them depended on the resources that could be received at the community college.”

Increasing access

Even before the pandemic, research found that more than a quarter of community college students don’t purchase the necessary materials for their classes. To counter this, Ivy Tech started offering students free subscriptions to Cengage Unlimited (the leading provider of Ivy Tech course materials), and almost immediately saw a 2 percent bump in student success rates.

“Our hope is to get to an inclusive tuition model going forward,” Ellspermann said, “because we believe community college students have to have everything they need for their first night, their first class.”

Because many of the people attending community college are low-income and working students, the goal is to make sure their educational investment is worthwhile.

“We want to make sure that when students come, they have a very high probability of success,” Ellspermann said. “That means having access to all course materials and technology.”

Learn anywhere

One of the most successful programs Ivy Tech has implemented is called Learn Anywhere, which gives students the choice to attend classes in-person, watch an online stream of the class in real time, or watch a recording of the lecture at a later date.

“So if I am a single parent and my child is sick one evening, I might want to go in to class, but I can’t,” Ellspermann said. “So now I can do it virtually, or I can do it asynchronously. And the next week, when I’ve got my life back in order, I can go in person, if that’s what I want to do.”

Ivy Tech has applied the same flexibility to its advising and career coaching, letting students and advisers connect virtually, and even during evenings and weekends.

Meeting goals 

When students succeed, entire communities benefit. Indiana aims to have 60 percent of its workforce be college-educated by 2025, and Ellspermann believes Ivy Tech is a key part of that mission.

“I think we can be the best partner in the community,” she said. “We can partner with employers to understand the programs that they need, and help build the pipeline of workers in those careers. We can partner with community organizations to provide the wraparound support these non-traditional learners need. And we can partner with our community and state leaders to ensure the ecosystem of higher education provides an equitable way for citizens to be students, and to be graduates.”

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