LBCC superintendent-president says college has to transform post-COVID
With the COVID-19 emergency officially ended, Long Beach Community College District Superintendent-President Mike Muñoz is preparing to give his first post-pandemic state of the college address, which will highlight an institution that may have been permanently transformed over the last three years.
Like almost every other element of everyday life, COVID-19 changed the way the college had to operate to meet students’ needs.
Enrollment, which the college avoided some of the steeper drop-offs suffered by other colleges in the state, pivoted almost exclusively to online classes. That required the college to hire a team of success coaches to help keep students on track.
It also distributed tens of millions in emergency funds and forgave student debt to remove financial barriers to enrollment after the pandemic heightened existing socioeconomic issues in the city.
The college began having students answer short surveys when they registered for school to help determine who was housing insecure, who needed help accessing food, which students had children and which ones were foster youth or were formerly incarcerated.
Muñoz was thrust into his leadership position in the middle of it all when he was appointed to the superintendent-president position in March 2021. He wanted to move quickly to help the college’s roughly 34,000 students.
“Prior to the pandemic, there was this false narrative that change has to be incremental and progress has to be kind of tempered and slow and you can’t move an organization as large as a community college too quickly,” Muñoz said.
“I think the pandemic taught us we need to respond quickly to the needs of our students.”
Those needs the college wants to provide now include housing.
It’s started to wade into conversations that could lead to it building affordable housing for its students. Muñoz said LBCC applied for a $90 million grant in January that could allow it to build a 400-unit student housing project near Veterans Stadium. The status of that application could be announced in the summer.
A $285 million bond measure that could have rebuilt the stadium and built additional student housing in its parking lot before the Board of Trustees opted not to put it on last year’s ballot is not necessarily dead, Muñoz said.
The college is also in “exploratory” talks to build a satellite campus in North Long Beach near the Michelle Obama Neighborhood library, something that could also include housing. The college could also look into public-private partnerships to build housing.
Muñoz said he doesn’t think it’s “mission creep” for a community college to provide the same kind of supports that are common at four-year universities, like child care services and housing.
“I could tell you that was not previously a priority for previous administrations,” Muñoz said. “We understand from the data that affordable housing is probably one of the biggest barriers to keeping students enrolled.”
Muñoz benefitted from student housing when he moved into a unit at the University of California Irvine at the age of 23 with his young daughter. She got to attend the child development center for free and he got to focus on his education, something that is a barrier for a lot of student-parents.
With online enrollment now at about 50%, Muñoz saw empty classrooms and a need that he experienced personally. The college partnered with the Boys & Girls Club, which played a large part in his daughter’s life, to offer free after school programming for students’ children.
There are more subtle changes that the college has made since the pandemic.
It’s also doing away with the dual-color graduations where certificate earners were required to wear red and transfer students could wear black gowns.
“To create that spotlight on the students to wear red when everyone else is wearing black, so they know they’re different. It’s like, ‘Why?’” Muñoz said of the decision to end the practice, saying it wasn’t inclusive.
Muñoz said he’s also taken a personal pivot from when he focused on students transferring to a four-year university to being a champion for the college’s trades programs and other efforts to draw in people who didn’t view themselves as college students.
One of the student speakers Monday is part of the college’s new Phoenix Scholars program, a $1 million partnership between LBCC and USC to promote higher education for young people who have been impacted by gangs.
Promoting student success
There are some challenges. Like the city, emergency COVID-19 funds are going to run out, and the college will have to prioritize which programs it implemented with those funds will stick around and figure out how to pay for them.
While LBCC’s “persistence” rate (71%) is up 10% from last year, meaning more students who enrolled in the fall returned for the spring semester, a figure the college hasn’t seen since 2015, “course success” is down.
That metric measures how many students pass a course with a “C” or higher and Muñoz said the college is fighting the “online paradox” where more and more students are registered for online classes but online students tend to have lower course success.
The college will have to be willing to invest in things like the success coaches it hired during the pandemic and support for teachers who need help organizing online courses. Muñoz said he tries to illuminate how those investments translate into more funding for the college as student retention and achievement goes up.
When he gives the state of the college address Monday, Muñoz said he understands how iconic the college is in the city, and he wants the community to know that it’s working hard to keep it iconic.
“What I want to be able to communicate is that we take that impact seriously, and we recognize it, and we’re working tirelessly as an institution to help our students and meet them where they’re at in this moment, coming out of the pandemic, and lifting them up,” Muñoz said. “We know that education is the great equalizer in our society.”
The 2023 LBCC State of the College address is scheduled for Monday, March 13, at 3 p.m. inside the Bob and Barbara Ellis Auditorium on its Liberal Art Campus at 4901 E. Carson St. Members of the public can register to attend here.
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