Pandemic takes a toll on ICCC
Iowa Central Community College’s Storm Lake campus is pushing forward in times of pandemic and economic uncertainty, with a mix of virtual and in-person classes.
The new Industrial Training Center on the north edge of Storm Lake is almost complete, with ICCC/Tyson training already taking place in the building, and other classes to move in starting next semester. A sign of the times appears on the door, dictating the entry is with face mask only.
Due to Coronavirus concerns, no public dedication ceremony or open house can be held for the $2.8 million development, Storm Lake campus director Chris Cleveland says. One possibility may be to hold an event on the one-year anniversary of the opening, in 2021.
Enrollment for Iowa Central overall dropped by 8.7 percent for this fall semester, which President Dan Kinney suggests will prove to be “a short-term blip” as prospective students take a “gap year” or at least a “gap semester” in hopes of a return to a more normal college experience soon.
The Storm Lake campus, which has often seen enrollment growth in recent years, also recorded a slight loss in student numbers this semester.
“It’s really rough,” Cleveland said. “Enrollment is on shaky ground, it’s just the reality of where the economy is. It’s not just Iowa Central, but all education institutions. We’re all doing the best we can do right now, based on the economy and the pandemic.”
The Storm Lake campus never really shut down this year, switching to online classes to complete its spring semester as health concerns dictate.
The decision for this fall was to offer virtual classes - unlike a completely online system where students study largely on their own, the virtual system has them attending classes live with their instructors on prescribed class schedule over Zoom and other platforms.
“It’s as close as you can get to being in the classroom with your instructor and classmates,” Cleveland said. “Actually, we’re finding that our students like it. A lot of them don’t prefer a fully-online model. They like to have that structure and accountability of being in class on a certain day at a certain time and getting the work done.”
A few AA degree classes, along with some of the technical and career courses, continue to meet in person. “You can’t do a welding lab online,” Cleveland notes.
In addition to a new building in a new area of Storm Lake, ICCC is moving ahead with some new classes, including drone operation, financial operations aimed at banking and other finance careers, and growth in a “night degree” program in which nontraditional students can work toward an Associate’s Degree entirely in the evenings with a mix of live and online study.
“A lot of people in this community are working, or have family responsibilities during the day, and this can get them through school at night,” Cleveland said. “We’re doing our best to help people continue their education or start on a new pathway.”
In an ironic juxtaposition, community college fortunes run opposite of the economy.
“Enrollment is very cyclical. When the economy does well our enrollment goes down. When the economy is down, our numbers go up. It’s kind of a vice-versa roller coaster - when there are jobs available, it’s harder to entice people to enhance their skills.”
That shouldn’t be the case, he feels. When unemployment is low and the economy percolating, the time is ripe to seek new skills that will put workers in better position to advance, he suggests.
“People don’t have to come to school full-time. They can take two classes, they can take one class. That’s why we have non-credit courses for people - for example, our small engine class. We’re always looking to respond to what people’s needs are at a given time. It might sound strange, but our goal is not for everyone to graduate - it’s for everyone to reach their goals.”
In Storm Lake, employment numbers generally run low compared to state and national averages. Many employers pay at or above average wages and treat employees well, so there is seldom a large pool of people who are ready to jump for new employment, Cleveland said. “What we do have is some people looking to make a career change or position themselves to move forward in that career. When the economy is robust, developing new skills and learning should be a continuous process.”
Enrollment for spring semester is now open at ICCC, but there can be no promises on how it will look as the pandemic continues.
How many students may be sitting in a gap period, still planning on college and waiting for better conditions? “It’s very difficult to get a feel - you don’t get straight answers a lot of times. My feeling is that those with a burning desire will find a way to go to school.”
ICCC is providing a flat rate tuition and including a device in tuition, to try to make the transition less stressful, Cleveland says.
With most of the classes taking place virtually, ICCC office doors in Storm Lake remain locked, but business continues as usual. “For anyone wanting to explore taking classes, whether it is a degree program or a non-credit class, all they have to do is pick up the phone or email. While access to the building is limited at this time, we’re still here, we’re still open.”
The challenge continues to be providing a college experience in an unprecedented health crisis. “We maintain as much personal contact with our students as we can,” Cleveland said. “We are constantly reassessing - can we go back to face-to-face, or can we not? That is literally a discussion taking place every day at the main campus. We are relying heavily on Public Health and the CDC for guidance, but with the pandemic situation being so fluid, it’s really hard to predict.”