Essex County College: Creating a Student First Path Amid The COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dr. Anthony E. Munroe
President, Essex County College

As president of Essex County College, one of the largest in New Jersey, I have long known that the institution played a key role in the life of the communities we serve, especially in the city of Newark, the most populous in the state. Last year, nearly 20,000 credit and non-credit students took advantage of 70 degree and certificate programs as well as numerous offerings leading to professional, career, vocational, and personal improvement. In addition, the businesses of Essex County have come to rely on the College for customized training. All of this at a tuition rate far below that charged at most colleges and universities.

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has upended nearly all aspects of our society, the higher education sector must adapt to meet the changing needs of our communities. And, we need to do it with significantly reduced resources since we are expecting greatly diminished enrollment in the summer and fall as well as a sharp cut in state appropriations. No sector in higher education is better situated to do that than are the community colleges – our basic mission is to meet the education and training needs of our neighbors.

Essex County College knows very well that its neighbors are among those hardest hit by the pandemic since it very much mirrors the communities it serves: It is a Predominantly Black Institution as well as a Hispanic Serving Institution (the only public college in New Jersey to have that dual designation) with 45% and 26% of its student body self-identifying as Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino, respectively. To provide all of the support possible, the College offers top STEM programs, was the first college in New Jersey to be part of the NASA Community College Aerospace Scholars Program, and has made a large investment in a virtual dissection table for our biology, health science, and premed students. The results are evidenced by the fact that our students have won more Jack Kent Cooke scholarships than any other community college in the region.

Even Ivy League universities (with their multi-billiondollar endowments) are unsure of how to plan for an uncertain future. Our community colleges, well known as efficient and adaptable institutions, are developing initiatives for the “new normal,” while seeking to cut expenses to keep our offerings affordable for all. The county is being ravaged by unemployment, especially among women and people of color. Essex County College is working with the County Workforce Development Board to identify what will be the top in-demand jobs and is modifying existing programs and creating new ones to meet that demand.

It will manage to present these even while recognizing its need to further the development of its community. It is inviting the essential workers in the county, our modern-day heroes, to attend without adding to their economic stress. For those with qualifying income levels, and after applying for available financial aid, the College will make up any shortfall that exists. All of the faculty, staff, and administration have joined together to meet the changing needs of the community and I am so proud that I get to be the face of a community college seen as a remarkable resource and pledged to be available to all.