The world of higher education is in a state of flux, and a new normal is coming at us like a Jordan Hicks fastball. I am proud of the response Bossier Parish Community College has had to the COVID-19 pandemic. Within a few days of the governor’s social-distancing announcement, BPCC staff put into place a telework infrastructure to support all of our employees and, within a week, our faculty stood up remote learning environments for the entire slate of BPCC courses to serve their students. Now that the curve is flattening, it is time that we firm up plans for how BPCC will look on the other side of the stay-at-home order. Now is the time to think through how the new normal can translate into enhanced services to students and to our communities. As my boss is fond of saying, “Don’t pass up on the opportunity of a good crisis.”
Much like forged steel—compressed under extreme pressure—colleges like BPCC will emerge from these trying times stronger than ever because we have experience thriving in the face of challenge. To be clear, the disorder and uncertainty generated by COVID-19 will deliver wide-ranging impacts upon higher education, and we are working intently to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and employees—all while re-imagining an organizational culture and structure with antibodies sufficient to end this pandemic and lead our regional economy out of an impending recession. Strategies key to BPCC’s success in the coming months and years include clear, consistent safety and sanitation protocols, curricular offerings responsive to the regional economy, support services far beyond those traditionally offered in higher education, and a high tech/high touch philosophy to better support students, advisors, staff, and faculty.
Like other businesses throughout America, BPCC is finalizing the very protocols that will allow us to safely welcome employees and students back to campus. Essential personnel have continued to secure, clean, and maintain the half-million square feet of space at BPCC. This team is also working with others throughout the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to develop protocols for cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting various spaces, surfaces, and equipment. Our May-mester and Summer terms will be delivered online—a strategy which will widen a window of opportunity for the curve to continue to move southward, for our people to transition back to the campus, and for continued planning and readiness toward the return of our students.
The impact that COVID-19 is having on small businesses, oil and gas, tourism, and gaming industries all but ensures two inevitabilities: Louisiana’s economy will require time to recover, and our State’s support for higher education will decline for the foreseeable future. More than ever, colleges like BPCC will be called upon to do more with less, and it will be incumbent upon all of us in the sector to ensure that our programmatic offerings are decisively aligned with the needs of our regional economies.
We are expanding and launching new programs that respond to job demands in Northwest Louisiana. BPCC is providing courses and programs online and delivering content that is both stacked and aligned to industry-based credentials which allow students to move from learning to earning as soon as possible. Cyber, healthcare, and manufacturing will continue to be areas of focus for BPCC, but we also have the ability to very quickly stand up short-term workforce training for displaced workers.
An economy that struggles to rebound from the pandemic will send more students to be trained and retrained in the nation’s community colleges. These students will arrive with needs that require a whole-of-community approach…if those students are to be successful. BPCC’s Cavalier Care Center was created to centralize and to serve as a clearinghouse for critical support services, addressing various insecurities that become barriers to student completion. Connecting students to funding such as S.N.A.P., WIC, Medicaid, and EITC is part of this work. The Center also houses a food pantry, the Cavalier Closet, and a laptop loan program, along with providing information on affordable housing, childcare, and other resources available in our community. With the support of the BPCC Foundation, the Center provides emergency grants to students who are, far too often, one flat tire, one dead car battery, or one unpaid electric bill away from dropping out.
Though we anticipate a reduction in state support for higher education, we expect an increase this fall in the number of citizens accessing the services BPCC provides. In order to serve these students at a world class level, we rely on the investment and innovation taking place right now. BPCC is supporting advisors with investments in predictive analytics and degree-planning software; they, in turn, are innovating proactive and technology-enhanced advising strategies.
To support faculty, we are investing in training to teach online and more fully utilize our learning management system. Our faculty are currently innovating approaches in the use of simulation, in distance learning, and in streamlining developmental education. BPCC is investing in technology to bridge the digital divide for students and to drive down costs. We’re achieving both by scaling up open educational resources and by freezing tuition rates for a fifth consecutive year. Our students are responding with record-level retention and completion rates all while gaining national prominence in successful testing for professional licensures.
In the last six weeks, the Covid-19 emergency has prompted BPCC to re-envision our role in many new ways—the way that instruction is delivered is only the tip of the spear. We have effectively leveraged high-tech to build a college that functions remotely at a high level; we have worked as one to embrace a “high-touch” philosophy in building closer connections with our students and employees. Despite the physical distance between us, leadership, advising, alongside the entire range of student support services, support staff, and instructors have all become more focused upon a person-to-person, individually-tailored experience.
Still, there is a longing for return to our campus, to the camaraderie of our profession, to the invigorating buzz that is unique to an institution of higher learning. The coming months and years will not be easy for higher education. In the meantime, I am confident that BPCC will continue to make safety and security our highest priority while we identify ways to bring something positive out of this crisis and forge systems that benefit of our students and our community.
Dr. Rick Bateman | Chancellor of Bossier Parish Community College.