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Online courses may discourage county’s poorest residents

Community colleges have a well-understood mission of educating the most economically marginalized people in a region. Typically, these local educational resources offer low-cost training for comparatively high-value jobs. For someone attempting to access the economy for the first time or replace lost income, few options beat a community college. Except when you consider the risk of taking online courses.

Typically, community colleges have an “open door” policy. These institutions take any student who enrolls. Enrollees include adults who may not have been in a classroom in years or don’t have a high school diploma. They may require remedial assistance. They may not have significant resources at home that will enable them to succeed in their studies.

COVID-19 has forced most colleges and universities to retreat to online course delivery, at least temporarily. Institutions are only now beginning to determine how they will conduct classes in the fall. Because they often offer technical and vocational classes, community colleges can’t serve their entire student population through online course delivery.

Online courses aren’t for everyone

But occupational education isn’t the only challenge some community college students face. As recently as 2019, more than 20,000 people in Washtenaw County had no high-speed Internet access at home. Without this basic level of connectivity, these people cannot take classes online at WCC – or anywhere else for that matter.

Even those who have Internet access may not have the computing resources they need to successfully complete classes online. Although WCC has provided some students with Chromebooks, generally speaking, these devices are only minimally capable on a good day. Students could use this device to access the Internet, or perhaps write a paper. But these devices aren’t powerful enough to run software that some students would use in a classroom setting. They don’t have any significant storage space, partially because they’re designed to use Google’s cloud storage. And they’re slow because they rely on Google’s cloud infrastructure for applications’ processing needs.

Staying home has consequences

Being able to get past the connectivity and computing hurdles may not make much of a difference for some students. Typically, community college students perform worse in online classes than four-year students do. And it’s not just that they perform worse. For some community college students, taking an online course not only has a negative impact on the student during that semester, but also on the next semester.

In fact, poor performance in an online class has such a negative impact on some community college students that it increases their likelihood of dropping out of school. To be fair, community college students who do well in in-person classes also tend to do well in online classes. Students whose academic performance in the classroom isn’t stellar tend to do poorly in online classes. These are the students at the highest risk of dropping out. Even when dropping out means giving up potential access to higher-paying jobs or increasing their personal debt.

While moving all of WCC’s Winter classes online on short notice may have been remarkable, it’s not the best option for many WCC students. And it is likely to have long-term (negative) impacts on them. For others, it creates an insurmountable barrier to education – the very opposite of WCC’s intended purpose.

Photo Credit: Benson Kua , via Flickr