We hope you enjoyed the first NCER network lead spotlight! Today, we would like to introduce Dr. Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center. Dr. Brock’s network, the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges (ARCC) Network, aims to provide timely, actionable research from the pandemic that policymakers and practitioners can use to help community colleges recover from the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Happy reading!
NCER: What are the mission and goals of the Accelerating Recovery in Community Colleges Network?
Dr. Brock: The primary goal of the ARCC Network is to provide timely, actionable research that policymakers and practitioners can use to help community colleges recover from the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include steep drops in enrollment—particularly for students of color and male students—and learning losses associated with illness, stress, and challenges of online learning.
NCER: Why is the ARCC Network important to you?
Dr. Brock: The ARCC Network is important because community colleges are important. They enroll about one-third of all undergraduate college students in the U.S., including many who are from low-income backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college. The nation needs strong community colleges to help students advance educationally and economically. The nation also needs community colleges to prepare workers and support the economy in essential fields such as health care, information technology, construction trades, and manufacturing.
NCER: I understand that you had a central role in establishing the research networks grant program at IES. What is your view of a research network, and how does it differ from a traditional education research project?
Dr. Brock: There is an old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With the research networks, IES intends to generate a body of work on a critical education problem or issue that is more impactful than an individual research project is likely to generate. This is because members of a research network come together regularly to discuss their ideas, tackle common methodological challenges, share data collection tools, and make sense of their emerging findings. They think about how to distill, align, and communicate research results from the early stages rather than as an afterthought. This benefits policymakers and practitioners, who look to researchers for insights and guidance. It also benefits the research community by building consensus on what has been learned and what new questions need to be addressed.
NCER: How do you think the ARCC Network will impact our nation’s community colleges?
Dr. Brock: Our hope is that the ARCC Network will help policymakers to be attentive to the needs of community colleges and shed light on the populations and places that need the most help. We also hope that the network will help identify promising policies and practices to promote rapid recovery.
NCER: What are some of the biggest challenges to recovery in community colleges?
Dr. Brock: Community colleges are largely funded based on enrollment. To date, the decline in enrollment has not led to too much reduction in academic programs or services because of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), authorized by Congress. HEERF funding ends after the 2022–23 academic year. If enrollments do not rebound quickly, community colleges will have to make significant cuts. This could lead to a downward spiral in which even fewer students enroll or persist, because they do not find the courses or services that they need.
Another challenge to recovery is learning loss. We know from the National Assessment of Educational Progress that there have been declines in reading and math achievement in K–12 schools during the pandemic. As these students mature and enter postsecondary education, they may be less well prepared for college-level work. Community colleges have made significant reforms to developmental education programs in recent years but will need to do more to ensure entering students succeed in college-level courses and make progress toward their academic and career goals.
Finally, we know that the pandemic has taken a severe toll on physical and mental health. Community colleges will need to find ways to reduce stress and promote wellness for everyone in their campus community–students, faculty, and staff.
NCER: What are some effective ways to translate education research into practice so that your work will have a direct impact on states and community college systems? What are some barriers to uptake of research outcomes by these organizations?
Dr. Brock: The ARCC Network will actively disseminate the research findings produced by individual research teams and by our national scan of community college enrollments and recovery practices. We will build a website that functions as an information hub for the most recent enrollment trends and reliable evidence on recovery strategies. We will conduct interactive workshops and webinars for state and local community college leaders and staff who are interested in learning from and adapting research-based practices to support pandemic recovery. We will use our connections with national organizations, like the American Association of Community Colleges and Achieving the Dream, and social media to ensure we reach a broad audience.
NCER: Are there some generalizable tools or lessons learned that are likely to come out of this network project that you think will benefit the education research community as a whole?
Dr. Brock: Yes. One area of focus for ARCC researchers, for example, is how to design and deliver effective online learning. Prior to the pandemic, most research on online learning in community colleges indicated it was not as effective as in-person instruction, but many colleges have upped their game with improved technology and better training and support for faculty who teach online. We have also seen from the pandemic that online learning benefits some students who might not otherwise attend community college, including students who live far from campus (especially in rural areas) or who are juggling demands of work and parenting. We hope to reframe the research debate so that it is less about online versus in-person instruction and more about how to provide online instruction most effectively to students who prefer this modality. We expect the lessons and tools from the ARCC Network will be broadly relevant to community colleges and may be adapted to other education sectors.
Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Thomas Brock! Come back tomorrow for our final grantee spotlight!