The challenges of the past few years have pushed America’s community colleges across the country to the brink, with bleak enrollment figures, strained finances and new questions about how these institutions should retool themselves to a rapidly changing labor market. Community college enrollment fell again in 2022, this time by 1.1%, a slower rate than the worst declines of the pandemic but still a worrying decline that points to an uncertain future for the sector.
As community college leaders work to stem the worrying decline in student enrollment and mounting financial challenges, a curious and long-running trend has accelerated: dozens of these colleges have dropped the word “community” from their names. It’s a branding strategy, meant to signal how these two-year institutions are evolving to meet the needs of the workforce and their increasingly diverse student populations. It also reflects the fact that community colleges in two dozen states can now offer four-year degrees.
Focus on uniqueness
While these changes might make sense for some schools, the growing number of institutions that are obscuring their identities as community colleges points to a larger identity crisis. Community colleges that have been devalued and disregarded for so long are now looking to beat the negative stereotypes. But community colleges have this name for a reason: They are the lifeblood of the communities they serve. Rather than run from what they are, community colleges should lean into what makes them so special.
Community colleges serve people from all walks of life. Indeed, one of their most important roles is educating historically underserved communities and marginalized students largely overlooked by four-year universities. More than half of the nation’s Hispanic undergraduates and nearly half of the nation’s Black and Asian undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges. These institutions also teach significant populations of students with disabilities, students over age 25 and military veterans. Some 45% of minority-serving institutions are two-year public colleges.
Community colleges are especially adept at many of the student support strategies that promote completion. These include establishing clear connections between classroom learning and career competencies, making job and career information readily available to all students and empowering learners to make informed decisions about programs of study that meet their aptitudes and aspirations.
Community colleges also excel at engaging with adult learners, an increasingly important segment of the student population in higher education. The flexibility that community colleges provide is often an economic lifeline for busy older students, who are the most likely to juggle academic obligations with complex work and family responsibilities.
We also shouldn’t take for granted the important role that community colleges play in educating students from historically excluded backgrounds. A new cohort of historically Black and predominantly Black community colleges show myriad examples of how community colleges are serving their students in innovative ways that other institutions should replicate.
Delgado Community College in Louisiana, for example, is mapping stackable credentials to each of its majors and encouraging adult learners to return to school by offering them more flexible and convenient on-and off-ramps to an education and a career. And in South Carolina, Denmark Technical College provides students and alumni with ongoing support and wraparound services to prepare them for a career. This includes professional development, career boot camps, internship resources and access to the campus career closet, where they can find professional attire for career fairs and job interviews.
Time for renewed commitments
None of this is to say that the community college sector is immune from criticism — or calls for reform and evolution. For one thing, far too many of their students don’t earn degrees. The college completion movement of recent years bears some responsibility. Unlike the public four-year universities that benefited from this initiative, two-year institutions have not received the same resources they need to make a real difference in their attainment outcomes. This lack of strategic investment is threatening to undo many of the hard-fought gains in access, equity and completion community colleges have made in recent years. In order to live up to its promise, the college completion movement must continue to place community colleges at its center.
More than a decade has passed since community colleges, college systems, states and the federal government made bold commitments to improve college attainment and completion. For the millions of students who rely on community colleges, these institutions remain their best hope. It is imperative that higher education leaders and policymakers recognize the significant role community colleges — and minority-serving community colleges, in particular — can play in providing access to education and a path to economic mobility for millions.