In the decade I have served as president of Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), I have worked to create a culture of change. My colleagues and I expanded the conversation of leadership at the institution to incorporate continuous process improvement into daily operations. We successfully secured community support for a comprehensive capital bond that provided significant updates to carry Tri-C’s infrastructure into the future. These achievements, among many others, positioned the college to rise to challenges faster and more effectively than ever before.
Then, as 2020 opened, the world came to grips with the disruption COVID-19 presented. Thanks in part to investments in culture and infrastructure, Tri-C quickly pivoted to all-remote — moving 2,500 courses online in two weeks.
Despite this, the overnight change presented a challenging learning environment for many. By late 2020, 40 percent of households reported cancelling all plans for community college; another 15 percent indicated they were either taking fewer classes or switching programs. Community college students were cancelling their plans at more than twice the rate of four-year college students.
The potential effect on the workforce is a deficit in prospective employees with the required postsecondary skills for available jobs. On an individual level, there was the strong possibility that many of these students would be lost permanently to higher education and the opportunities it provides.
Over the past two years, faculty, staff and administration have implemented initiatives to keep students on track to reach their educational goals. Tri-C has worked with community organizations to provide lower-income students with the equipment necessary to learn from home. Two major enrollment initiatives have helped students continue toward a degree or certificate.
- The Full Tuition Assistance Program offset academic and workforce training costs for Cuyahoga County residents facing financial hardship due to COVID-19. The program covered tuition for new or returning Tri-C students whose financial need intensified during the pandemic. More than 3,000 students were enrolled as a result of this program.
- Level Up is an ongoing collaboration with Cleveland State University to recruit, recover and re-enroll students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and inner-ring suburban high schools who postponed or stopped their education during the pandemic. To date, more than 1,000 students have enrolled or re-enrolled.
These initiatives helped save the educational dreams of thousands of students and reinforce the future of the Northeast Ohio workforce at a critical time. Despite the pandemic, in academic year 2020-2021, Tri-C conferred 4,600 degrees — the highest single-year number ever — and more than 19,000 workforce degrees and certificates.
As I prepare to close my tenure at Tri-C, I am proud of the culture of change we have created and proud of the reinvigorated facilities and infrastructure that welcome the community to vital educational programs. However, among my most gratifying accomplishments has been equipping people to see these tools can enable us to rise to great challenges and emerge stronger.
A new future is beginning for Tri-C, and I am confident it will continue to propel our community to even greater heights. ●
Alex Johnson, Ph.D. is President of Cuyahoga Community College