Chapter 8: Unprecedented
Posted on February 23, 2023Download as a PDF
Download as a PDF
Throughout the pandemic, all of us frequently invoked a single word to describe our experiences: “unprecedented.” How frequently? In 2020, The New York Times “Dealbook” called it one of the words of the year1, and this year, a quick Google search I did in writing this piece turned up 117 million hits and counting that paired “unprecedented” with COVID.
As my community college, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), navigated each challenge, decision, and crisis during the pandemic, I used “unprecedented” over and over almost as a talisman to insulate our community from and explain away the seemingly endless series of shocks we were facing. Locked away and distanced from each other, overwhelmed in unprecedented ways during unprecedented times by one unprecedented event after another, all of us in higher education took unprecedented steps to keep our students, our employees, and our colleges moving forward through dark days that turned into weeks, months, and years.
Now, two-plus years later, I have a different—and paradoxical—understanding of how COVID was unprecedented for higher education. At the very moment that our institutions, faculty, staff, and administrators were most distant from our students, we had an unprecedented look into their lives. Whether through Zoom, online chats, or late-night emails, our students opened a window into aspects of their lives that, for some time, had fundamentally shaped their interactions with us and, in some ways, had been hiding in plain sight. It was all suddenly made visible.
Like many colleges, before the pandemic NOVA had run surveys to learn more about students’ basic needs, including food and housing. Like many colleges, NOVA offered food pantries on our campuses. We also connected students to a social benefits platform (Single Stop) that assisted students in filing for these programs. We felt confident that we were providing the holistic supports that made the difference. Yet the urgency of need expressed by the thousands of students who participated in my biweekly Zoom office hours during the pandemic made it clear that we needed to do more.
The urgency of need expressed by the thousands of students who participated in my biweekly Zoom office hours during the pandemic made it clear that we needed to do more.
Looking back to pre-COVID times, it’s clear that our campuses had the effect of creating a false equivalence among our students: they were all in the same desks, at the same lab tables, in the same hallways. They could study in the same libraries, use the same computer labs, and access the same Wi-Fi. The pandemic stripped away that window dressing, and we saw each student in his, her, or their own Zoom window. Even the vehicle for this virtual communication told a powerful story. Some students came through clearly, bolstered by robust Wi-Fi signals and lit brightly in quiet rooms. Yet too many appeared only as names on a blank screen, cameras off for fear of draining too much bandwidth or of invading the privacy of others in a tightly shared space or of revealing they were unhoused and possibly logging in from a college loaner laptop in our Wi-Fi-enabled parking lots.
The pandemic affected us all—but it did not affect us all equally. We know now that COVID had a disproportionate and disproportionately lasting impact on low-income communities and minoritized populations—the very populations who are more likely to enroll at community colleges.2 Paradoxically, when we went remote, we saw up close the devastating impact on the lives of our students of basic needs insecurity, income inequality, racism, intergenerational poverty, unequal access to health care, and so much more. We had an unprecedented window into the supports our students actually need to be successful, and we felt a new sense of urgency to meet these needs—and to do even more: to rededicate ourselves to the transformational work necessary to close the gaps exposed by the pandemic.
Now, as our students return to our campuses, and this window closes, all colleges and universities have a responsibility not to forget what we have seen and learned and how our unprecedented perspective on the challenges facing our students can and should change our institutions post-pandemic. I am proud to say that NOVA is taking this responsibility and opportunity to change seriously, and our changes can be grouped into two broad categories: money and time.
Almost immediately during the pandemic, we gained a much deeper understanding of the precarious financial situation of our students. It is expensive to live in Northern Virginia: according to the MIT Living Wage calculator3, an adult with no children needs to earn almost $23 an hour to achieve a sustaining income—though minimum wage is just $11. This is almost three dollars an hour more than is required for Virginia as a whole. More than 70 percent of NOVA’s students have traditionally gone part-time while working. Their jobs were in sectors shuttered overnight by COVID: retail, hospitality, and personal services. For example, employment in the hospitality sector in Virginia fell by over 40 percent from March to April 2020.4 Long before any government aid began flowing, our students reached out in a panic. Their tuition was paid, but they no longer had money for food, rent, or the suddenly essential broadband. We resolved to help and to reinvent some critical institutional pathways for doing so.
The NOVA Educational Foundation had long been focused on providing tuition scholarships to our students, but the needs surfaced during the pandemic changed its short-term focus and long-term strategy. Within a week of NOVA shifting to remote operations, the Foundation had stood up an emergency aid application and was providing $500 grants to our students. Then, its Board pivoted to the long-term implications of what they had learned in this overnight crisis. It was clear that funding students’ tuition was necessary but not sufficient. COVID had simply illuminated a painful truth: our students had long lived on the financial margins, in fear of even the smallest unexpected bills and expenses. In response, the Board refocused its planning around the launch of an ongoing Student Success Fund, dedicated to supporting emergency aid grants going forward. This fund is now up and running.
COVID had simply illuminated a painful truth: our students had long lived on the financial margins, in fear of even the smallest unexpected bills and expenses.
The emergency aid grant applications also opened a window of insight for NOVA about how our own policies and practices had unintended negative financial impacts on our students. Many students were stretched to breaking because they had drained their savings to pay their tuition in full during registration. Why? Because, if they did not, their registration would be canceled by NOVA. The motivation behind the policy had been good: NOVA wanted to create a safeguard against students accumulating bad debt by registering for classes they could not afford. The problem was real, but the efficacy of the implemented solution had never been assessed. This is not a new issue in higher education: all too often, our colleges put in place practices and processes with the best of intentions but never engage in an evaluation of outcomes. NOVA believed that dropping students for non-payment was beneficial, but was it?
Our new vantage point into the lives of our students suggested otherwise, and when we took the time during the pandemic to assess the impact of our drop for non-payment policy, NOVA decided to find a different solution—we found it in a program we had long overlooked and underutilized: our payment plan. Our college’s chief financial officer worked with our vendor to restructure the payment plan, creating a biweekly plan that would enable our students to spread their tuition over the entire semester in more manageable charges that could be budgeted like any other bill. To incentivize our students to opt into the payment plan, NOVA now also subsidizes the plan fees, further bridging this financial gap.
A primary mission of all higher education, though, is not just to bridge that gap but to eliminate it by connecting what students learn to what they can earn. During the pandemic, we had seen the sudden fragility of the sectors that employed most of our students and the rapid demand for regional sectors that were more resilient, especially the tech sector. NOVA recognized that we could do more to engage these employers with our students and prepare our students for careers and job searches in fields far from what they knew: cyber- and cloud-computing, data center operations, machine intelligence, mechatronics, and more. So our college leveraged the time provided by the pandemic shutdown to redesign, radically, our career services. Within months, NOVA had launched the first-ever community college Business Engagement Center, centralized our internships and apprenticeships, and redesigned the career counselor role—aligning all under workforce development. Job fairs, resume prep, career readiness workshops, and more all went virtual and attracted more employers and students than ever before.
The pandemic-driven boom in data flow brought even more business to Northern Virginia’s expanding data center corridor, so NOVA sought and obtained funds to double the size of its data center operations program, creating even more pathways that pay for students. As other Virginia universities grew their own remote offerings, NOVA saw an opportunity to partner in new ways. One result: the NOVA/Virginia Tech Business Intelligence Technology-Cybersecurity degree, the first ever Virginia Tech bachelor’s degree that can also be completed outside of the university’s Blacksburg, Virginia campus. The cost of the degree, the most in-demand at Virginia Tech, is reduced because of the 2+2 articulation, and access is increased because students—most of whom are working adults—can keep their current jobs while they earn a credential highly prized and paid in the region. The importance of the imperative to connect our students to better paying careers cannot be overstated: the most recent Hunger Report from the Capital Area Food Bank,5 a report covering year two of the pandemic, found that almost three-quarters of those reporting food insecurity are employed. They are simply not employed in sustaining wage careers—even though the demand for a workforce in such pathways, including tech and health care, has never been higher. We must act on what the past few years have shown us.
When the pandemic brought our students’ precarious financial footing to light, NOVA took swift action because we could see the results in real savings for those in the greatest need, and we continue to rethink and revise policies and practices because of what COVID revealed. Without the push of the pandemic, though, it is not as likely that these changes would have occurred. The truth is that, left to craft our own timelines, higher education too often literally falls back: deadlines extend, discussions wear on, reports go unfinished. Time is an unacknowledged privilege and luxury within the academy—but not for everyone.
Our unprecedented window into the lives of our students showed how overcrowded they were. The contrast between their everyday realities and the COVID self-discovery narratives depicted in thousands of Instagram accounts—sourdough bread bakers, herb gardeners, yoga enthusiasts, and more—was stark and compelling. Our students had no time for new hobbies during the pandemic because they suddenly had new—unpaid and endless—jobs as at-home teachers, afterschool monitors, intergenerational caregivers, internet bandwidth police, and free Wi-Fi hunters. Many students also held down multiple part-time jobs as newly defined “essential” workers. They shopped for and delivered meals and groceries to others that they, themselves, often could not afford; they were cashiers and rideshare drivers in double masks behind heavy sheets of plexiglass; they were tireless health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. The hours in their days stretched until they became too thin to keep their shape.
Our students had no time for new hobbies during the pandemic because they suddenly had new—unpaid and endless—jobs as at-home teachers, afterschool monitors, intergenerational caregivers, internet bandwidth police, and free Wi-Fi hunters.
The pandemic made visible what researchers have come to call “time poverty.”6 Individuals who experience time poverty are typically also parents. They work long hours in low wage jobs that still leave them qualified for social service benefits. These benefits, in turn, require complicated regulations to understand, extensive paperwork to complete, long waits in queues (virtual or onsite) to process, and ongoing documentation and follow-ups to sustain. Research prior to the pandemic demonstrated that time poverty was particularly acute among parenting college students,7 and during the pandemic, as schools and childcare centers closed, these student parents lost an essential support that had added a few hours in their days and kept them afloat.
NOVA had long had services to support students’ basic needs, but pre-pandemic, such services were unevenly distributed across our six campuses and not always co-located. Once our college went remote during the pandemic, we seized this opportunity to consolidate all these supports under a single, initially virtual, umbrella: the Financial Stability and Advocacy Center. Now that we have returned to our campuses, this center is still available virtually, and it is also now a physical presence on our campuses. It provides a timesaving one-stop shop for assistance with emergency aid, connection to social service benefits, access to pantries for food and personal hygiene products, financial counseling, and more. For parenting students (those at greatest risk of time poverty), we are providing an even greater level of support. NOVA has partnered with the Capital Area Food Bank on a pilot to deliver goods from our pantries and has leveraged a federal CCAMPIS grant to provide textbook and laptop loans—removing a few items from all that student parents must juggle.
Like all in higher education, NOVA has seen the toll that the flood of stresses and crises has taken on our students’ mental health. We worked with several other Virginia community colleges advocating for the ability to offer mental health services as an essential support for our students. This past year, for the first time, our colleges were authorized to provide mental telehealth services. Knowing the demands on our students’ time better than ever before, we have made this service, which includes everything from mindfulness and wellness activities through appointments with licensed counselors, available 24/7.
Finally, recognizing that—well-meaning as they are—our college policies and processes can be confusing and time consuming for students to parse and follow, NOVA also hired our first-ever student ombudsperson. Our ombuds is a neutral, confidential guide for students, walking them through and connecting them to the right office from step one so that they can be their own best advocates and make the best use of their limited time. The ombuds also helps our college understand where we might need to take the more difficult (and even unprecedented) step of changing ourselves.
Every open window is an opportunity to see in and see out, to learn more, to communicate, to change. In March 2020, faced with an unprecedented global health crisis, colleges and universities embraced distance to keep our communities healthy. In so doing, we paradoxically opened windows that brought us closer than ever before to understanding the complexities of our students’ lives. We began to see how we must respond to support them holistically, authentically, and effectively—and to take action to do so. The strength of our institutions going forward and the strength of our students’ futures will be determined by how we act now that these windows are closing and the urgency we have all felt is waning. Will we simply drift back to the dulling comfort of precedent? As we all work to put the trauma of the last few years behind us, there is one thing from this experience that we, as college presidents, must strive to keep: it is the drive—always—to do the unprecedented in service of our students.
1 Karian, J. and June, S. (2020, December 29). “The things our bosses said a lot this year.” The New York Times.https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/business/dealbook/words-of-the-year-mute-unprecedented.html.
2 Community College Research Center. (n.d.). Community college FAQs. Retrieved June 20, 2022 from https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/community-college-faqs.html.
3 Glasmeier, A. MIT Living Wage Calculator. Retrieved June 20, 2022 from https://livingwage.mit.edu.
4 Aylor, T. (2020, May 22). The Virginia unemployment rate rose to 10.6 percent in April while total nonfarm payroll employment fell by 383,400. Virginia Employment Commission. Retrieved June 20, 2022 https://www.vec.virginia.gov/node/11938.
5 Capital Area Food Bank. (June 2022). 2022 Hunger Report. https://hunger-report.capitalareafoodbank.org/report-2022/
6 Kalenkoski, C. M., Hamrick, K. S., & Andrews, M. (2011). Time poverty thresholds and rates for the US population. Social Indicators Research, 104, 129–155.
7 Wladis, C., Hachey, A. C., & Conway, K. (2018) No time for college? An investigation of time poverty and parenthood. The Journal of Higher Education, 89:6, 807-831.