Transformation and Community Support in Higher Education

This is part of a continuing series of commentaries by Alabama business and community leaders about the coronavirus crisis.

Jim Purcell, Ed.D | Executive Director, Alabama Commission on Higher Education

A changed world it is. This pandemic has highlighted how interconnected our American society is and how vulnerable our lives are to disruption. And, so it is with the state’s colleges and universities.

Nearly three-quarters of faculty had never taught an online or distance learning course, but now, within a few days, all of them are teaching using this modality. Two-thirds of college students had never taken a course online and now they are all finishing their Spring semester classes from remote locations around the state and country. In addition, a few state universities have already signaled that they will offer all of their summer courses online. We are all hopeful that the fall semester will be experienced in a much more familiar form of delivery for students.

Be assured that, regardless of how we teach, there will always be a commitment to delivering a quality learning experience that will prepare students for their future careers. Passing knowledge from one generation to the next is a human imperative, and our institutions are committed to that process.

Alabama’s colleges and universities are still open for business, but just in a different format. With the safety of our students and staff in mind, we are rethinking our business model in a manner that takes into consideration this COVID-19 experience. Colleges and universities will increase the use of distance learning to deliver courses. In the short-term, universities are expecting that fall semester enrollment might be lower than in previous years. Students seeking to adhere to social distancing guidance may not choose to live in densely populated, traditional on-campus housing or eat in large cafeterias. Community colleges will also increase their online offerings, but could see higher enrollments in the fall term, as many people seek to improve their employability.

The CARES Act does provide relief for colleges and universities by providing “emergency support through grants to institutions of higher education serving students that have been most significantly impacted by coronavirus, and to support the ability of institutions to continue to provide educational services and support the ongoing functionality of the institution.” This funding is welcomed and will be put to good use.

- Sponsor -

I hope the citizens of the state are heartened and encouraged by the generosity of college and university staff and students who are supporting their communities, hospitals and health care professionals. The range of effort is overwhelming and inspiring. From east to west and north to south, this pandemic is seeing multiple critical needs in the state being met by the higher education community. Food banks are being filled in west Alabama from the University of Alabama’s Greek community, while Auburn University’s athletic staff are sewing face masks to be used on the front lines to stop the spread of the virus. The University of Montevallo is supplying health care workers with 3D printed Personal Protective Equipment and Alabama A&M University is using technology through tele-health services to reach out to their students who are experiencing depression and anxiety due to the disruption in their lives caused by COVID-19. The two-year colleges are sharing equipment and supplies from nursing and allied health labs with their local medical facilities.

We are all in this together, and the more we share our gifts and talents with our neighbors and community (at a safe distance), the sooner a better future will come.

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