Playing offense

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There are many competing interests in Washington, D.C.

I am grateful that community colleges continue to have a seat at the table in policy discussions. Community colleges are often lauded as the accessible, relevant and low-cost pathway to higher education. So often I hear stories from people outside of the sector about how their local community college impacted them or someone they know. Large corporations are partnering with community colleges to develop and implement programs that will provide skills and degrees for students that are designed to increase employability and keep the workforce pipeline flowing.

It is clear that community colleges are making a positive impact on students and local economies.

This article comes from the new issue of the Community College Journal, which has provided information to member colleges of the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

But there are detractors. I am often asked to respond or comment on what others say about community colleges. In just the past few months there have been numerous articles, commentaries and reports that argue against the efficacy of the community college. Many times, they cite data that is less than flattering. I have seen numerous articles and interviews that call out the facts about completion and transfer rates. There also is talk of student loan defaults and low earnings rates for non-credit programs. None of the facts cited are untrue. And, none of them are a surprise.

When these facts are used, I sometimes want to act like a protective father and forcefully respond with the hundreds of reasons why community colleges are amazing for students, communities and economies. I want to provide explanations about the nuances of the data and point out the flaws in their analysis.

The truth is that it is impossible to provide counterpoint arguments for everything. And, because community colleges are focused on the practical work of providing low-cost, high-quality educational opportunities, there is not a lot of research and data from which we can draw.

To complicated for soundbites

Don’t get me wrong. Like you, I can and do fiercely advocate for the sector in the press, in Congress, and in the day-to-day activities of the American Association of Community Colleges. We work diligently to ensure we not only have a seat at the table but that our voice is heard. It is imperative that community colleges continue to be viewed and included as a solution provider at the highest levels of policy discussions. I know that every community college can cite success and provide data-driven rationale for some of the unflattering statistics used by others. My allegiance to the sector and our multiple missions is unwavering.

I also recognize that we don’t always have the data to provide counterpoints. As practitioners, it is not inherent to our institutions to develop and publish research. There are many sources and organizations that provide excellent data for our sector. This data is rich and helps us to tell the story of our nearly 12 million students and advocate for their needs. But, the data — like our colleges — is complicated. The nuances of completion, transfer and persistence data are critical to understanding who we are and who we serve. Unfortunately, this information does not always lend itself to a soundbite.

The right opportunities

In today’s 24-hour news cycle, it is sometimes difficult to get enough air time to adequately tell the whole story of the community college. We play offense on most days and get our message out as wide and far as possible and are proud of the attention that our sector gets. However, we do find ourselves on defense at times and it is then that I hear from leaders and advocates with ideas on responding to what others have to say about community colleges.

Often when that happens it is related to a specific topic, bill or opinion piece. We gladly weigh-in on proposals and bill language. Responding to opinions is something that we must carefully consider. It would be easy to send off a response opinion, but we have to consider if it would be useful and how it would serve our colleges and our students. I have and will continue to respond assertively to negativity, incorrect information and falsehoods. But it is important to know that when you respond to others, you are playing defense and, in some cases, it only lends credibility to their opinion. That opinion may be altruistic or may be motivated by politics, funding or both. Regardless, it is important to understand as you consider your response.

It may be that continuing to play offense is the best way to advocate for your college. Remember that great teams study the opposition and strategically develop plays designed to garner winning outcomes. Go team!

About the Author

Walter G. Bumphus
is president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.