GREENVILLE — When the coronavirus pandemic temporarily shuttered the world in the spring of 2020, it was difficult to project its lasting effects.
In the world of higher education, it turns out those effects have almost completely changed the way colleges are interacting with their students.
During the monthly Coalition of Greater Greenville meeting on Jan. 18 hosted by the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce, guest presenter Connie Stewart, interim president of Montcalm Community College, informed the audience of just how much the college has had to adjust in order to ensure it is meeting the needs of students today compared to that of students just a few years ago.
“What’s been happening with higher ed, as a general rule? Well there are continued changes,” she said. “One of the things we’ve been hearing in the last year is that students are in a different place now, post-COVID, than they were before. One of the ideas that is being followed up on is that we need to meet them where they are at.”
Stewart expanded on that notion, explaining that the college has worked to provide additional resources and put forth additional efforts to help guide students on their journey as college students at MCC.
“At this time in probably everyone’s life, meeting people where they are at seems to work better,” she said. “People approach things a little differently, so that’s become a part of our thinking. Competency-based education is occurring more and more as something higher education is looking into, as well as online course availability. We need to be cognizant of what our customers are asking for, while still engaging with them.”
The average age of MCC’s 1,532 students is 24 with a median age of 19, meaning the majority of MCC students are not long removed from being high school students who attended school during the pandemic.
Of those students, only 15% attend the college full time, while the other 85% attend part time.
“So, that median age, it has gone down,” Eureka Township Zoning Administrator Darcia Kelley noted. “Do you see that because not many adults are going back to college?”
“It fluctuates with the economy,” Stewart answered. “Right now, lots of people are working. If there are jobs available, they are going to go to those jobs as opposed to the college, so we’re seeing that age drop in recent years. So right now, we’re seeing younger and younger kids using the college.”
To help guide those students, MCC has created a Conductor program, which has assigned 779 current students in addition to 570 dual-enrolled students to a specific staff member at the college to help guide them.
Additionally, with the demand for more online courses, MCC has increased its number of online offerings, more than doubling from 63 in 2020 to 129 in 2023.
“We’re seeing a transition at the college — more online classes are being asked for,” Stewart said. “We are offering that while trying to still engage with the students on a personal level.”
Additionally, in 2021, the college introduced “live online learning” classes, which allow students to participate in class while attending remotely from home; however, after introducing 146 offerings of online learning in that first year, the number of offerings has dwindled to 54 as more and more students express a desire for online learning only.
The college also offers hybrid learning options, which consist of a mix of face-to-face and online learning, with the number of offerings having increased from 95 in 2020 to 113 in 2023.
Stewart said the college is also balancing the expectations being delivered upon institutions of higher learning.
“There’s been an increased focus on completion and retention rates and us needing to make sure that we are having students complete and finish their graduation,” she said. “The funny thing with a community college though is it’s not just getting out the door with a degree. Perhaps it’s a couple of classes is what a student needs, an apprenticeship program or a certificate. So we’re trying to get our arms around — what does ‘completion’ mean?”
Stewart added that increasing enrollment overall at the college, as well as student retention, remain the top goals of the college.
“Increasing enrollment is the number one goal of our strategic plan,” she said. “Things that we’ve been doing to accomplish that include partnering with Saginaw Valley State University through a $2 million grant for our nursing program, utilizing the Michigan Achievement Scholarship and reviewing our programs and curriculums,” she said. “Once we get students, we want to make sure that we keep them, so we’ve been looking at processes for that.”
The college’s second goal within its strategic plan is to improve student success and access.
“With our conductor program, someone is assigned to every student that comes to us,” she said. “It’s kind of a check-in point for them, if they need help, so they can reach out, whether it’s financial aid or help with self-services.”
Stewart said this is accomplished with two full-time conductors and seven part-time conductors. She added that the Robert Ferrentino Student Success Center on the college’s campus has also served as a “one-stop shop” to assist students with whatever they may need.
“It used to be you had to go to several different buildings to accomplish things, but we’ve made that much easier now for our students,” she said. “We have also placed a focus on student engagement. We bring in local artists to perform at our Woodside cafe and now we’ve introduced athletics.”
Stewart said after the first year of bringing back athletics for the first time in 40 years, both the student body and community have been supportive of the effort.
“Our home attendance at volleyball games, it was so cool, the spirit and community engagement,” she said.
According to Stewart, MCC had the highest home attendance average in the MCCAA conference for women’s volleyball, which finished with a record of 7-15 in its first season. MCC was second in the NJCAA conference in attendance average and fourth in total home attendance.
“That is for the nation,” Stewart exclaimed. “What we are very proud of is we extended visits to games for students at Lakeview, Central Montcalm, Tri County, Portland, Ithaca, Greenville, Saranac, Vestaburg, Montabella and Belding. Volleyball athletes all came to a home volleyball game during the season.”
Stewart put out a personal plea for students to consider attending MCC.
“When we talk about the college itself, one of our taglines is ‘transforming lives through quality education,’ she said. “I stand before you as a graduate of MCC. I did it as an adult with two kids at home. It took me five years, going part-time. I had a full-time job. I’m an example of what can happen to our local people by the advantages of the college being there. It raises their economic value back to our community as well.”