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Chattanooga State Community College campus sign / Staff file photo

Like many college presidents around the country, my leadership team and I made a great deal of challenging decisions in the last couple of months. Moving classes online. Cancelling student awards ceremonies. Cancelling employee awards ceremonies. Cancelling all student events. Postponing graduation. Each decision felt like a punch in the stomach. I felt as if I was letting down our students, faculty and staff.

As a community college graduate myself, I know first-hand the important role community colleges like Chattanooga State play in the lives of high school graduates who aren't quite ready to move away from home to attend a university or who don't think they are ready for higher education. I thought back to my community college experience and remember how precious those extra two years were with my parents. I remembered with gratitude the small class size and individual attention. When faced with the reality of moving every class to an online format, I found myself asking, would that individual attention to students be lost?

As a former community college adviser, I know the important role that community colleges play for students who want to transfer to a university as juniors, with all the prerequisites for their bachelor's degrees taken at a fraction of the price, reducing the need to take on student loans. At Chattanooga State, more than half of our students enroll in a university parallel major, allowing them to transfer seamlessly to a four-year university in Tennessee and further reducing the cost of their bachelor's degree. According to a 2018 College Board study of student aid, nearly 60% of community college graduates complete their associate degrees without student loan debt. In Tennessee, graduating high school seniors can take advantage of the TN Promise, which would enable them to complete the first two years of a bachelor's degree with no tuition costs. In addition to reducing student loan debt, community college students enjoy academic success when they transfer. National research conducted by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and multiple state-level studies indicate that community college transfer students perform as well as or better than their native university counterparts. In this "new" online world, would we still be able to prepare our graduates to perform so successfully when they transfer to the four-year school?

As a current community college president, I know the important role community colleges play in our communities. We train our students for prosperous careers in fields such as nursing, engineering, mechatronics, welding, respiratory therapy, nuclear medicine, and hospitality. Ninety-eight percent of our technical degree graduates secure employment in their field of study after graduation. Our apprenticeship programs allow students to attend school while remaining employed in their fields of study, receiving substantial pay raises when they graduate. I firmly believe in our "why" at Chattanooga State: to improve the lives of our students and the prosperity of our community. Would the decisions we were making help us achieve our "why"?

The resounding answer to these questions is yes. By providing a safe, healthy learning and working environment for our students and our employees, we improve our students' lives and the prosperity of our community as we do our part to keep our students, our employees, and our community safe. In fact, because of the COVID-19 experience, Chattanooga State is better positioned to meet our community's needs.

Chattanooga State will continue to successfully prepare our students to transfer to four-year universities. Chattanooga State will continue to prepare our students to secure jobs as nurses, engineers, truck drivers, graphic designers, radiation therapists, and machinists. Chattanooga State will continue to improve the prosperity of our community through the lives of the students we serve.

As a community college, this is who we are. This is what we do. We are dedicated to student success. We are outstanding educators. We are transfer. We are workforce. We are Chattanooga. We are Dayton. We are Kimball. We are Chattanooga State.

Rebecca Ashford is president of Chattanooga State Community College.

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Rebecca Ashford
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