Community colleges are the key to economic opportunity during COVID-19
By Cherry Lim | Sept 8, 2020
Columns share an author’s personal perspective and are often based on facts in the newspaper’s reporting.
Education can be the great equalizer in our socially unjust society. And I’ve seen firsthand – through my family and now in my career – the critical role community colleges play in creating opportunity for students across our Commonwealth regardless of language, race, or income level.
When my parents arrived as refugees in the 1980s, they knew limited English. But in taking English classes at Bunker Hill Community College, they were able to give my brother and me more opportunities than they had. Today, I work at Bunker Hill Community College as an Academic Coordinator, helping students from all different backgrounds succeed every day.
Funding for community colleges has changed drastically since my parents attended Bunker Hill Community College. But as our state and higher education executives issue reactionary cuts and reopening plans in response to COVID-19, the future of community colleges, not to mention our students’ futures, hang in the balance. We need our public higher education leaders to do their jobs so future Bunker Hill students, and community college students across our Commonwealth, can continue to get the same high-quality education my parents had.
Accessible, affordable education opportunities – like those for over 10,000 students at Bunker Hill – have proven time and time again to be the backbone of the economy during a recession. However, while Massachusetts is often touted as the most educated state in the nation, we’re 26th in the country in funding public higher education. This underfunding from our local and state governments threatens to cripple our campuses at a critical moment, and our college leadership is failing our staff, faculty, and students in not advocating for more resources.
In the midst of a global pandemic and economic recession, Bunker Hill Community College is stuck. As an academic advisor for English Language Learners, students have confided their struggles to me. While I’ve joyfully met my students’ children and families for the first time, I’ve also shared in the sadness when students confide that they don’t have internet at home or face financial aid restrictions.
Investment in community colleges from government and public higher education leaders could restore critical opportunities for these students and stabilize our economy. Yet our leaders haven’t provided the resources we need. Instead, it’s fallen to my colleagues and me to fill the void left by recent cuts, so our students don’t get left behind. We’ve spent countless hours on video, phone, and email working with our students and their families. We’ve loaned out hundreds of Chromebooks and we’ve delivered hundreds of pounds worth of food. While we take pride in our solutions, we also know we’re fighting an uphill battle. Our leaders have shown they would rather cut support services for students than advocate for the funding we all deserve.
This funding is all the more urgent in light of COVID-19. Our campuses need more funding to ensure a safe return to campus. Unlike our private, four-year counterparts, Bunker Hill Community College simply lacks the resources to maintain the highest standards of safety in the face of a disease we still do not know much about. Even at our satellite campus in Chelsea, one of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic, staff are being asked to return to campus to see students, but haven’t been provided the necessary PPE. By opening campus during this tenuous time without the appropriate resources, we’re not only exposing our most vulnerable populations at the college, but our communities as a whole.
There will be some folks out there who believe that education should be one of the last priorities to fund right now. In a time where unemployment claims are at record highs, the argument goes, we cannot afford to fund public higher education at the same levels as the last 20 years.
But our public higher education system is a driver of opportunity, equity, and employment that benefits our entire region. We may live in uncertain times, but education has, without fail, increased wages for all who pursue it. Our leaders, who never shy away from praising the resilience of our students, pass the buck when it comes to getting those same students the resources, support, and funding they need to continue their education safely and successfully.
Now, more than ever, public higher education leaders must recognize that an investment in our students is an investment in our economic future.
Cherry Lim is an AAPI Academic Coordinator at Bunker Hill Community College.