COVID-19 upended college plans. NJ county colleges expect to help
Although the summer is just barely under way for current college students and high school seniors are about to graduate, discussions have been ongoing for months about how to reopen college campuses for the fall semester.
It is much too soon for either New Jersey's higher education institutions or Gov. Phil Murphy to be able to issue any definitive decisions or guidance, but the Garden State's 18 community colleges are expecting many students will lean on them in the fall, whether or note the campuses of four-year schools they would have been attending are.
"Obviously, it allows people to be closer to home," Aaron Fichtner, president of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, said. "It provides them a diversity of high-quality educational experiences. There's a lot of very compelling reasons for people to take a really serious look at their local community college."
Among those who have benefited from the education offered at New Jersey community colleges, according to Fichtner, are essential employees working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic for the last several months.
Enrolling at a community college, he said, can potentially shorten a student's pipeline to employment.
"With record numbers of people who are very unfortunately unemployed, community colleges can provide an opportunity for people to get skills and education, whether it's in our non-credit programs or our degree programs," Fichtner said. "Our colleges are very connected to their local employers, and so the programs they offer are very much aligned with the changing economy, and they also offer very good pathways to a four-year education."
Fichtner said not only do community colleges offer a more reasonable price tag than four-year schools, including financial aid packages that could result in free tuition, but they also have been on the leading edge of moving their classes online.
"Many of our colleges have a long history of providing distance learning, online education," he said. "All of our colleges worked tirelessly to make sure that all the students this semester transitioned successfully to an online experience."
County colleges are typically commuter-driven. But even given reduced interaction compared to a college with on-campus housing, Fichtner said the schools he oversees are currently working to balance the practicality of dividing learning between virtual and physical locations with the health and safety needs of every school's surrounding community.
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