Stop treating community colleges as the fallback option or a last resort

Community college
Professor Christian Agunwamba writes on the board while teaching his ‘Fundamentals of Algebra’ class at Bunker Hill Community College Brian Snyder
  • Branding community colleges as the fallback plan in education isn’t helping students or colleges.
  • Hardly ever do we see community colleges positioned as a first choice in higher education.
  • Community colleges are as varied as four-year institutions and have a lot to offer.
  • Shauna Davis is the strategy director for community college participation for Lumina Foundation.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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In a sea of articles about the enrollment crisis across America, I spied it: one sentence meant to be supportive of community colleges that clearly showed their branding problem. It said how community colleges have traditionally seen enrollment increases after economic downturns as adults rush to train for better jobs. Sigh.

While job training is certainly essential, associating job loss with a potential enrollment windfall doesn’t strengthen the community college brand.

Very rarely are community colleges positioned as aspirational – as a place where people go because the school is great at something, where the campus community draws people in and engages them – not a place where people go if things have gone wrong and they can’t be someplace else. Big sigh.

I believe in these schools because I’ve seen how they can help students. I’ve spent years working at two-year institutions and now lead Lumina Foundation’s efforts to support community colleges with initiatives to increase enrollments of adults. I know first-hand that community colleges serve one of the most diverse student bodies in higher education. Despite tight funding, they serve millions of people through job training and are a cost-effective pathway to a university degree.

But branding community colleges as the fallback plan is not helpful to our students, colleges, or communities.

Community colleges shouldn’t be seen as the fallback option

When was the last time you wanted to go somewhere only because you couldn’t afford to go somewhere else? Now, when was the last time you wanted to go somewhere because you heard such great things about it, and you wanted to experience it for yourself?

Hardly ever do we see community colleges positioned as a first choice in higher education. Too often they are positioned as “that other” option in higher education.

The truth is that community colleges are as vital and varied as four-year institutions. They come in all shapes and sizes, from large multi-campus colleges that could rival a state university to small rural schools that have a homey feel. They offer a wide variety of degrees, certificates, and programs that enrich lives, turn novices into experts, and launch graduates into jobs that keep the rest of us safe, healthy, well-fed, entertained, learning, and in business.

What’s truly special about community colleges is their range of programs, focus on teaching, and their genuine approach to being an inclusive place of learning – in practice and mission. With an average student age of 28, they are colleges that understand the needs of adult students and celebrate their success.

But the bottom line is this: You can’t expect people to flock to places that they think are merely adequate. Community college leaders know this, and many are working to improve services, simplify processes, make pathways to education clearer, and create a culture that not only says it’s great, but actually feels great – from its websites to its classrooms and parking lots.

Those of us who invest in education should continue to look for those innovative efforts and support them. At Lumina, we are prioritizing adult community college enrollment through direct college grants.

And those of us who write about community colleges, well, let’s be mindful that no one wants to enroll in a college or rush to hire students from a school that they think is just okay. We need more stories about what’s special about community colleges and what they do exceptionally well.

We need stories that reinforce the unique value proposition community colleges bring to our education system and lift up their ability to not only help people rebound, but to ensure that there are colleges in our local communities focused on access and opportunity for all.

There is more to be done to position the brand of community colleges beyond the place you go once the sky has fallen to the place you go because you want to reach the stars. While that might seem like a romantic notion, it’s rooted firmly in the reality that words matter, and if we’re going to strengthen education attainment by encouraging more adults to earn a credential after high school, we should start by recognizing there are many pathways to success – not just one.