'College behind Costco' proves its worth during pandemic
By Nathan Canilao
Jack Stickler was a rising young star in Dublin High School’s theater program. His beaming smile and effervescent personality became a familiar sight in shows like “Guys and Dolls,” “Urine Town” and “Sweeney Todd.” He had high hopes by the time college application deadlines rolled around. The American Musical and Drama Academy in New York City, that’s what he was thinking. He would major in musical theater at AMDA, a top-notch performing arts college.
The nerves were starting to build. It was getting real. He could envision graduating. He could imagine the discomfort of being in a new city all by himself. He could already feel the intensity of pursuing an infamously treacherous career path. It was a lot to process, and it was happening so fast. But this felt like destiny.
Then COVID-19 hit. All his plans came to a crashing halt. He became one of the millions of graduating seniors who had to alter their plans. They were supposed to be spending the summer of 2020 enjoying one last romp through their town, with friends they may never see again, before entering a new stage of life.
Instead, they found themselves rearranging plans, vetting distance learning programs and converting their bedrooms into Zoom-ready classrooms. Those who got into their dream school had to wonder whether their virtual admission was worth the regular price tag attached. They could take a gap year. But isn’t the point of that to work and save money, or travel somewhere to refresh after high school? All of that was out during a pandemic. A gap year was robbed of its usual perks.
So what was left? Community college.
The old reliable. The beacon for altered plans and second chances. The local staple ready to assist with most all aspirations.
Colleges were under a microscope once the pandemic interrupted the spring semesters, trimesters and quarters. The rise of COVID-19 cases brought partying students into the spotlight, making them one of the targets of blame for the rising cases. Then there was the public debate about colleges keeping their costs the same despite shutting their doors, closing their dorms and transitioning online. When sports began shutting down in March, the controversy became about what sports should play, what should continue and which ones would disappear altogether due to the loss of revenue.
Through it all, California community colleges came out looking pretty good. Often overlooked in the search for prestige, junior colleges in some cases seemed more equipped for the new environment — especially commuter schools such as Las Positas College, which already boasted a quality distance education program and isn’t encumbered by on-campus housing.
Behind the appealing curtains, community college districts have been facing serious challenges of their own — including a decline in students enrolling and a reduction in budgets. But someone had to be there for the students who needed a place to go. Someone had to provide for a community in search of quality academics in the middle of a pandemic. Someone had to answer the demand for affordability, convenience and efficiency. And Las Positas College was that lifeboat for local students. That includes Jack Stickler, whose New York theater dreams are currently put on pause.
Stickler had extensive theater training for someone his age. His experience in improvisational practice taught him sometimes he has to make big decisions on the fly and just go with it. Sure, this improv was brought about by a virus infecting the globe, but he can adapt. It’s not acting stages and Central Park strolls. But it’s also not hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn online.
In mid-July, UC Berkeley and UC Merced were the first UC campuses to announce their fall semester would be online. Within a virtual event about how coronavirus was affecting California, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ claimed it was too risky to allow face-to-face instruction.
The Chabot-Las Positas Community College District’s Chancellor Ronald Gerhard announced in May 2020 that the district would enact online learning for the fall semester. Five months later, the district announced the spring 2021 semester would remain online.
“Most colleges and districts in California are experiencing a 10 to 15% decrease in enrollment from last fall,” Gerhard said in October. Las Positas, he said, was down 8.34%. In other words, 684 fewer students for the fall 2020 semester.
Gerhard added that, historically, recessions have typically increased community college enrollments. Recessions lead to unemployment and “community colleges are often sought out to provide short-term training and certifications for employment, career advancement and education that leads to new careers and economic mobility.”
A recession will inevitably lead to changes in budgets and for the education sector, this couldn’t be more true. In the Chancellor’s Budget Town Hall held on Nov. 2, Gerhard went over how the coronavirus recession has impacted the economy, including funding for education. In June, California’s unemployment rate was at 14.9% which then went down to 13.3% in July. And according to the Employment Development Department (EDD) for the state of California on Oct. 16, the unemployment rate dropped down to 11% in September 2020 compared to only 3.9 percent in September 2019.
Although the pandemic has caused a $54.3 billion budget deficit for California, Gerhard said the district is facing budget deferrals, not cuts, for the moment. Despite deferrals being better than budget cuts, Gerhard said, “It’s not going to provide immunity to anticipated cuts or the level of cuts that we expect.”
The district took action and enacted a hiring freeze which “provides us with a great deal of flexibility to adjust, and to respond to the fiscal circumstances, and not immediately impact the employment of current employees,” Gerhard said.
Gerhard also said that the District Enrollment Management Committee suggested possible reductions in the number of classes offered in the 2021-2022 academic year. Gerhard was quick to reassure his audience that none of the changes have been set in stone yet. He also encouraged people to discuss and share their views about where the budget plans could and should go.
But there is more than enough at California community colleges to accommodate the rush of rising and current college students who want to stay local in a pandemic or don’t want to pay the cost of attendance without all the perks of attending in person.
Even though many students across the nation have scoffed at the idea of online education at full price, they still seem to find value in online education when it is affordable and allows them to stay at home.
“(Students) still find it very important. That’s why they’re coming,” said Rajinder Samra, LPC’s director of research, planning and institutional effectiveness. “The more higher education you have, the more likely that you are able to make a wage that supports a family.”
Jakdhale Gutierrez has hopes of becoming a lawyer, though she’s still trying to settle on a preferred practice. You don’t have your eye on law school and expect a cakewalk. That’s why although she prefers in-person education, especially for math and science, she’s fine with an online detour at the local community college because “nothing is going to be easy no matter what level of education we are heading to.”
College is tough as it is. Throw in a pandemic, a recession and heavy issues weighing on the national discourse, and you have yourself the 2020-2021 school year. People have to toughen up and power through unexpected struggles. The community college setting is ideal for students who are determined to grind through some adversity.
Gutierrez originally planned to attend Saint Mary’s College after graduating from high school. But she chose LPC to help her family save money. She decided the community college route after meeting with a counselor at Saint Mary’s and learning what she needed to do to transfer there from LPC.
Stickler was given similar guidance by AMDA and the supportiveness of the college regarding transfer students. However, he still plans on going to New York. He had been planning a straight-to-NYC move after high school. But being forced to shelter in place at home changed his feelings.
“I think because I’ve spent so much time at home,” said Stickler, an Eagle Scout who continued his community service while still home, “it’s kind of just become really crazy to think about leaving that really soon and just making that (move for AMDA) super fast.”
It’s the decision millions have been forced to make. The trick for them is to keep pressing toward their dreams while the nation seems to be suspended in a state of adversity. That’s where community colleges come in. That’s where Las Positas thrives.
“The best way to succeed is just keep your eye on the goal,” Samra said, “(on) what your goal is, and self-advocate for where you want to go.”