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Don't let the downturn get you down

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Commentary

As community colleges across the country defend themselves against across-the-board budget cuts, they need to go on the offense by mobilizing key constituency groups to make the case that community colleges offer the best hope of turning the U.S. economy around.

Our extensive work with community college systems in seven states and two in-depth opinion research projects reveals that few people understand the value of public two-year colleges and the huge impact they have on economic success. Similarly, too few community colleges have organized effective advocacy efforts, and when they do speak out, they often use messages that don’t resonate with their target audiences.

While those at community colleges feel beaten down by unfavorable comparisons with four-year institutions, they need to realize that a huge reservoir of good will exists and should be tapped. Our poll findings show that the public holds community colleges in high esteem, but they don’t understand two critical issues that undermine the support of these institutions on the state policy front:

• Most people don’t realize that community colleges are typically part of a state system and that state government holds the purse strings that play a role in ensuring their success. The question is: Who should people hold responsible for the colleges’ finances?

• Few understand the macro-economic benefits of community colleges. They see that these institutions help individuals get ahead, but that just makes it a story about individual gain, not community success or the economy.

These two misunderstandings need to be clarified through the use of effective communications strategies. Obviously, community colleges can do a better job of pumping from their reservoirs of goodwill, but there are a number of cultural, structural and messaging challenges that they also must address to really be successful—not overnight, but over time.

Most community college systems at the state and local level commit all their communications resources to enrollment marketing. More money needs to be spent on advocacy for policy change, with the same level of attention and precision.

Messages that are used often boomerang, undercutting the credibility and esteem that the colleges have earned. This is not obvious, because these messages seem like self-evident facts that should help the image of community colleges. The worst culprits are the following:

• When colleges talk about the advantages of open enrollment, many people hear "no standards."

• When they talk about offering adult basic education, people think, "Why is a college doing that? Didn’t we pay for them to get this help in the K-12 system?"

• When they talk about their role as providers of English as a second language classes, some hear, "You are encouraging illegal immigration."

• When community colleges make comparisons with four-year institutions in terms of class size, personalized service and cost, the focus group participants we observed pushed back on these claims and expressed disbelief.

The bottom line is that community colleges are different. They play a crucial and unique role in higher education, serving as a gateway to opportunity for individuals, and as key players in building a stronger economy. Policy messages about community colleges need to be built around core American values of opportunity and access. At the same time, community colleges across a state must unite around common messages and issue a clarion call for expansion.

Two-year colleges need to begin to educate the public about their economic impact: how they retrain workers, help align the workforce with the needs of employers and put money in the pockets of people who are struggling to get ahead. Rather than suffering from cutbacks, community colleges need to be expanded in tough economic times. Out-of-work or underemployed people need to be trained for jobs that are begging for skilled workers. Furthermore, getting people into better jobs can solve a state’s budget challenges by increasing tax revenues.

Community colleges can and should organize effective advocacy programs. Rather than allocating all communications resources to service marketing:

• Make advocacy a budget priority.

• Communicate value to the public, particularly policymakers, engaged citizens and key community leaders.

• Rather than competing, remember community colleges are part of a state-wide system. Use that power by collaborating with each other. Legislators, too, know how to divide and conquer.

• Rethink competition and independent branding, which undercuts the idea of statewide purpose.

• Finally, community colleges rarely reveal the consequences of bad policy or changing community realities. The usual response of your typical mission-driven community college leader is to hunker down and make do with less money or more regulations, and to try to serve more students with ever greater needs for support. Don’t suffer in silence. Inform your community about what is going on. They have a right to voice their concern. Silence only guarantees further cuts, when there are no political consequences.

We have seen community colleges make progress when they unite around a common message and adopt a statewide strategy run as an ongoing campaign. Such campaigns must include:

• Trained spokespeople, particularly presidents and trustees, who can carry the message to various audiences.

• An advocacy plan with a timetable that orchestrates common activities by a chorus of key actors at critical moments.

• Effective press strategies that shine a light on problems as well as successes and point to solutions that will work.

• Excellent and routine communications with legislators by stakeholders, not the annual "lobby day."

• A professionally managed communications initiative that uses the latest Web-based advocacy strategies, viral marketing and coordinated state media events.

Ultimately, making a major investment in advocacy, attacking the cultural barriers and building statewide collaboration can pay handsome dividends. While funds are short today, this is the perfect moment to shift priorities and stake out a claim for the unique contribution community colleges can make in addressing the needs of our country’s most vulnerable citizens and helping to get your state’s economy back on a growth track.

 

 
Gould is president of Douglas Gould and Company, a strategic communications firm with experience working with community college systems and other higher education groups promoting greater access and student success.

 
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