Community college students are disproportionately struggling right now. As one of their professors, here’s my advice for faculty on how to best help them.

Students are getting left behind. Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • Elke Weesjes is an adjunct assistant professor in European History at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and an associate at a mental health practice in New York City where she works with vulnerable populations.
  • She writes that community college students have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Students may not be forthcoming about the challenges they’re facing – like lack of resources, internet access, or difficult financial circumstances.
  • Professors should use tools that can be easily accessed from smartphones, provide clear and consistent structure, and have firm weekly deadlines.
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Alice* was anxious about turning in the first draft of her writing assignment. It was six days late and she hated missing deadlines – but it was beyond her control. Earlier that week, the 19-year-old community college freshman from Brooklyn had been forced to move into a shelter because of an increasingly unstable home situation due to domestic violence. There was no internet service at the shelter and she couldn’t go to a friend’s house or the college library because of the shelter-in-place order. She eventually managed to catch up on her work at a relative’s home, turned in her final draft – an outstanding essay about the experiences of a Jewish family in Paris during the Holocaust – and passed the course.

Alice’s situation may seem exceptional. It isn’t. In fact, unstable living conditions are one of many chronic crises low-income community college students face. Others include higher exposure to violence and racism, poor health due to limited access to preventative healthcare, personal, or familial immigration issues, and a myriad of other socioeconomic disadvantages. They have many responsibilities, ranging from working full-time jobs to caring for children, siblings, or parents. Many are first generation students, members of minority groups, and non-native English speakers. While some of these challenges and crises are visible to professors, others remain outside their periphery.

In light of these daily challenges, it isn’t surprising that many students struggle with mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety. For community college students, especially, studies indicate that mental health is a major concern – even more so than their peers at four-year institutions. According to a 2016 study, approximately 50% of community college students show symptoms related to one or more mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, self-injurious behaviours, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation.

Elke Headshot 2
Elke Weesjes. Elke Weesjes

While the COVID-19-necessitated switch to remote learning was difficult for students across the board, it has been especially trying for community college students. Many have jobs in the service industry that were deemed essential and they have been expected to take on more hours than previously. Unlike their more affluent peers in four-year institutions, low-income community college students tend to work more than the recommended 15 hours per week, usually hold minimum wage jobs unrelated to their education, and work to put food on the table instead of to pursue passions and interests.

And those aren’t the only challenges students have to contend with. Low-income students often lack access to reliable internet service, personal computers, and physical space where they can focus on their course work. Normally, they could access such resources on their college campus, but when schools closed their physical locations, it became painfully clear that many low-income students were relying on their smartphones to access digital learning platforms, email, and other online resources.

Recent news reports emphasise that this ongoing health crisis is disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable students and has widened educational gaps between rich and poor. What then should professors be doing to alleviate the stress of low-income students while also providing them with quality education?

Due to feelings of shame, students are often not forthcoming about the obstacles that stand in the way of their learning.

Instead, they tend to struggle silently or even quietly drop out when these barriers prove to be too much. Professors, therefore, should work to proactively gather such information, which could be easily collected through a short confidential questionnaire at the start of a course.

With the campus closed, many students’ needs can no longer be accommodated through services provided by the college. Educators who were formerly unaware of their students’ struggles must now apply a more inclusive approach when designing lesson plans and course requirements. When any decision can potentially exclude or alienate a student, it is important to understand students beyond the classroom.

Whether to teach synchronously (real-time instruction) or non-synchronously (where students work at their own pace) is one of these decisions, although both approaches can have limitations.

Synchronous real-time instruction can exacerbate issues of equity and access. Students need reasonably fast and reliable internet connections, a computer, and a suitable space to attend online classes. Asynchronous approaches, on the other hand, can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation – already likely present in a time of social distancing – since there is little to no social interaction between students or their professors. Without real-time instruction, course material could potentially be misunderstood, which can be especially detrimental for students with learning disabilities.

Finally, an asynchronous approach requires students to set their own study schedule, which can be difficult for students with demanding work hours or family responsibilities. Assignments might be set aside to deal with more pressing needs and the resulting workload can cause students to feel overwhelmed and anxious.

Considering limited funding, there isn’t much that can be done to address the disadvantages of synchronous teaching. Those associated with asynchronous methods though can be overcome in a number of ways. Professors can use tools such as online journals and discussion boards that can be accessed easily from smartphones. These tools give students a space where they can have private conversations with their professors, interact with other students, ask questions, share concerns, and submit assignments. Ideally and with encouragement, students can use such journals to express their mental and emotional state, share about logistical difficulties, and receive support from their professors.

Armed with relevant information and clear lines of communications, teachers can then begin to provide some of the elements – such as a clear and defined course structure – that was lost when classes transitioned from in-person to online learning. Firm weekly deadlines will help students navigate their study load and reduce anxiety associated with open-ended assignments. Additionally, to enable students to thrive, professors should stick to rigorous, predictable schedules while still being open to understanding pandemic- and life-related disruptions.

The pandemic has exposed existing educational disparities, and widened the imbalance between wealthy and poor students. The crisis, however, is also an opportunity for professors to get a deeper understanding of student needs and how to accommodate these in the virtual class setting, instead of relying on services provided elsewhere. For someone like Alice, it could make the difference between compounding life struggles and assuring success.

*The student’s name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

Elke Weesjes is an adjunct assistant professor in European History at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY and an associate at a mental health practice in New York City where she works with vulnerable populations.