Ithaka Surveys Community College Library Directors on Student Success Contributions, Collaborations

On September 9, Ithaka S+R released the findings from its most recent survey of community college library directors on issues of leadership, strategy, and collaboration during the pandemic, “Library Strategy and Collaboration Across the College Ecosystem.” The survey, fielded in February and March, was the third phase of the Community College Academic and Student Service Ecosystem (CCASSE) project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Ithaka S+R logoOn September 9, Ithaka S+R released the findings from its most recent survey of community college library directors on issues of leadership, strategy, and collaboration during the pandemic, “Library Strategy and Collaboration Across the College Ecosystem.” The survey, fielded in February and March, was the third phase of the Community College Academic and Student Service Ecosystem (CCASSE) project, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Ithaka surveyed 321 community college library directors and those in equivalent positions at not-for-profit associate degree–granting institutions on their efforts to enhance student success, the impact of COVID-19, and the challenges they face. Most respondents assumed their roles within the last five years and are white women between the ages of 44 and 55.

The CCASSE project was launched in 2019, before the onset of COVID-19 and the many changes it led to. But its mission—to examine the strengths and challenges faced by service leaders in higher education—library directors, academic officers, and others—has remained the same, and offers the opportunity to gauge how priorities have changed during the pandemic.

“We came into this project recognizing that students bring all kinds of individual strengths and challenges with them to college,” said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, Ithaka manager of surveys and research and report coauthor. Community college students in particularwho tend to include first-generation, low-income, and nontraditional students, and those studying English as a speaker of other languages, as well as attending school while working full-time and/or taking care of children or othersoften struggle to navigate student services, she explained, and COVID has shone a spotlight on existing challenges.

“Institutions, because of the pandemic, are paying greater attention to the ways that they communicate with students, and the ways that they organize services, to maximize students being able to take advantage of them,” Wolff-Eisenberg told LJ. “That was the original rationale for the project and it feels like it still resonates as much, if not even more, than when we when we planned it.”



As with many other institutions, community colleges have seen significant financial contractions during the pandemic. Results of this survey were consistent with those reported earlier by library directors at four-year institutions, although many of those surveyed in fall 2020 for Ithaka’s “Academic Library Strategy and Budgeting During the COVID-19 Pandemic” report had not yet received finalized budgets, and at the time expressed a greater degree of uncertainty about what their funding would look like.

Nearly half of all community college library leaders reported some level of budget decrease during the current fiscal year. There is no clear trend as to the extent of these cuts, and 47 percent are unsure of how the pandemic will impact their budgets in the long term. Where money is available, there is a strong push for improving access to digital content. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CARRSAA) funding for education has helped, and leaders anticipate increased support for learning materials such as open educational resources, analytics tools, distance learning course development, and cross-departmental collaboration.



The nation’s 1,000 community and technical colleges occupy a critical niche in American higher education. They are more affordable than their four-year counterparts, with tuition assistance offered through state aid and federal grants, and President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan has proposed to provide two years of community college tuition-free. Their libraries are a key part of this equation.

“Community college libraries serve the academic role that four-year libraries do, but then also serve in a public library role as well,” noted Ithaka Surveys Analyst Melissa Blankstein. “We wanted to make sure to account for those unique situational components that community college libraries are going through.”

Library leaders are less concerned with milestones of enrollment, retention, and graduation, as well as numbers for student transfers and post-graduation outcomes, than are chief academic officers (CAOs) and student affairs officers (SAOs). Library directors rated work such as focusing on social justice issues more highly than CAOs and SAOs did—although the numbers of CAOs and SAOs who considered those objectives highly important more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, from 24 percent to 58 percent.

Responding directors also feel a lack of alignment between library contributions and institution-wide benchmarks—less than half rated the library’s strengths of student learning and community development as extremely important to their college overall. Those assets, however, rank highly with library leaders, 83 percent of whom rated developing research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills as extremely important to them.

This disconnect, the report suggests, “may stem from organizational differences, as well as an inability to sufficiently describe and demonstrate the library’s contributions towards institutional and student success.”

Library leaders consider institutional priorities such as student enrollment and graduation critical—just under 80 percent of respondents rated increasing retention as an extremely important objective for their institution, with 71 percent stating the same for increasing enrollment and 61 percent for graduation rates. They identified their library’s most important contributions to student success as supporting learning, developing community, and providing technological resources. These efforts mainly involve information literacy instruction and meeting the demand for technological resources during the pandemic, particularly providing students with laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to use at home. This has called for expanded collaboration with other departments, particularly IT, and library leaders predict that those partnerships will continue to grow over time.



Libraries have taken the lead on device lending, with IT departments outside of academic and student affairs partnering on maintaining and troubleshooting devices. This is particularly important at small or very small colleges, where 77 percent of library leaders rate technology provision as extremely important, compared to 72 percent at medium-sized and 66 percent at larger colleges.

With the shift to remote instruction, many libraries needed to dramatically scale up their approaches to loaning technology, collaborating with IT departments not only on maintenance and troubleshooting but, in some cases, on the acquisition of the equipment itself if the library budget is unable to support their purchase. In some cases, however, a lack of access to campus facilities has hindered the circulation of laptops and Chromebooks; one respondent noted that “[We] froze our loaning of technology due to concerns about properly disinfecting.”

Additional important cross-campus collaborations take place within academic affairs, such as writing and tutoring centers. However, partnerships outside of the college, such as with other academic libraries, public libraries, or external vendors, is anticipated to remain flat. One possible reason, suggested Wolff-Eisenberg, is that perception of the library’s role remains relatively static on the part of outside stakeholders. “Senior administrators outside of the library don’t always see how the library contributes to bigger student outcomes like retention and course completion,” she noted. Responses from community college library directors also indicate that they need to articulate these connections more clearly.

Surveys such as this one have the potential to highlight opportunities for collaborations and connections that aren’t always apparent, Wolff-Eisenberg noted. In a webinar Ithaka shared with survey respondents, she told LJ, the coauthors asked, “What would it look like for public libraries and two-year academic libraries to partner together on providing basic needs supports for patrons and for students to address issues like food and housing insecurity, or transportation, or childcare?”

Student Affairs departments, too, represent a potential partner, she added. “A lot of what they're working toward are similar kinds of things that the library is trying to work toward. But there often isn't a lot of information sharing across those two sets of units around what exactly it is that they do, how they could collaborate. Once you start to form those connections, I think there's actually a lot of excitement.”

“I would really like to see this report starting a lot of conversations between library directors and their staff, and with their leadership, on their library's mission,” said Blankstein, “as a way to better streamline the college ecosystem, but also, ultimately, support students.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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