Flexible. Supportive. Innovative. Effective. Community colleges are all of these things as they prepare millions of students for in-demand jobs.

With 41 percent of the nation’s undergraduates choosing to attend community colleges, now more than ever, policymakers and businesses are looking to these institutions as engines for economic growth, central to ensuring that the nation reaches its educational attainment and workforce goals.

In other words, community colleges have a terrific story to tell.

Community College Roundtable (short version.) Full 17-minute discussion is at the bottom ↓

So how can they tell it better? What messages should they highlight? How can community colleges build their brands?

These were among the questions posed to a group of seven community college marketing and communications professionals who recently convened with Lumina Foundation Strategy Director Shauna Davis to discuss public perceptions of community colleges and how they can best communicate their value at a time when more people are broadly questioning higher education.

Correcting misperceptions

Filling an increasingly vital and versatile educational role, these colleges are succeeding in changing the tired public perception that they are “just vocational-technical schools,” both through the design and delivery of their programs and in the ways they communicate about them.

“What excites me is the change in the national tone about attending a community college,” said Stephanie Erdmann, CEO of Great Falls College in Montana. “We are getting recognized about the return on investment for individuals to get the job they’ve always wanted … to make a difference for the next generation. We now have a place at the table, and I don’t think we’ve had that in 20 years.”

In Guam, “We got over [the vo-tech] stigma a while ago,” said John Dela Rosa, assistant director of communications and promotions at Guam Community College. “We now have this reputation as being a solution. When there are workforce issues or training issues … employers come to us to build programs, and we have really been flexible and responsive to that.”

Many colleges are finding ways to offer multiple pathways to careers, said Christina Hallingse, director of media relations at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina. For example, a workforce training program can lead to an industry-recognized certificate and credits toward a degree.

Melissa Albright, vice president of marketing, public relations, and enrollment management at County College of Morris in New Jersey, added: “There’s a [prevailing] narrative that you are only doing workforce [training], or you are only doing credit, but it’s all part of the college experience. Becoming a comprehensive college is the narrative we need to tell.”

Great messages to spread

Small class sizes are a great selling point for community colleges, one of the panelists thought should play into their marketing messages. “You can stand out so much more at a community college,” said Taylor Warnes, director of marketing and communications for Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota. “Most people think a private school is where you are going to get that, but at community colleges, you have these really cool research opportunities, and it’s not a competition. You are not trying to shuffle through hundreds of classmates in your lecture class.”

Another key feature of community colleges is flexibility. Flexible schedules are especially important for students over 25, who make up as much as half the populations of the colleges represented by the panel. Some students may need to stop out because they have competing priorities like  full-time jobs and caring for children. But community colleges aim to make it easy for them to come back, with class schedules and online programs that accommodate their busy lives. “People don’t ever have to stop attending a community college,” Albright said. “The process [makes it] fairly easy to get reskilled and upskilled.”

What’s in a slogan?

In some cases, the idea of lifelong learning has even led to a change in slogans. “We used to say things like, ‘Start right, and finish strong,’” Albright said. “And I actually asked our teams to stop using ‘finish’ because I don’t want the student life cycle to ever really stop.”

Now the message at the County College of Morris is “Go Big,” which encompasses a number of themes, including saving big and earning big. “We are a small community, but we want people to know their futures are big,” Albright said. “And we are trying to show that [we] have a big impact on students and big impact on the community.”

At the Community College of Guam, Dela Rosa said, “The invitation is, ‘Come As You Are.’ We tell people, ‘You come to the door, and we’ll help you figure out what the path is,’ because it’s different for everybody.”

New York’s community college system has taken a statewide approach to its message, which is, “Stay Near, Go Far.” Because so many community college students are local, the system wanted them to understand that they could stay close to home but soar in their careers. “We are trying to convey that there’s a lot of opportunity for you here and that you can experience that wherever you are coming from and whatever you are doing,” said Jennifer Miller, SUNY’s assistant vice chancellor of community college support.

A similar message was deployed in Louisiana with its “Start Here, Go Anywhere” slogan. “The message is that you may start here, but you may end up anywhere in the world,” said AcQueena Grant, director of communications and outreach for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “And with an education you can absolutely do that.”

The panelists debated the possible challenge to highlighting certain messages. Community colleges often talk about affordability and practicality, for example, whereas four-years often focus on a more aspirational narrative. Do community colleges focus too much on affordability, even given the acute attention to higher education’s return on investment? Some thought they did so at the expense of the aspirational message.

As for community colleges being “the best-kept secret” in higher education, Hallingse, for one, said, “I really hope we have moved away from that … If we are ‘the best-kept secret,’ that is not exactly good for the populations we are trying to serve.”

The power of alumni

Any college marketing strategy must include alumni — using them as spokespeople, courting their support — and on this matter, the panelists agreed that four-year colleges had them beat. Alumni are the great untapped pool of community college boosters, they said, so two-year institutions need to up their game, building their graduates’ loyalty and enthusiasm and preparing them to serve as brand ambassadors.

Alumni dedication, however, requires building a sense of community when students are still in college. “If I have that sense of belonging [as a student], I am more apt to stay in touch after I become an alum,” Grant said. “That’s the advantage the four-years have; [their students] spend four years together and they feel part of the institution. In Louisiana, you bleed purple and gold [the colors of Louisiana State University.] … How do we take that juice and give it to our students, too?”

What comes next?

So what’s ahead for the nation’s community colleges?

In the next five to 10 years, the panelists saw community colleges leading the way to meet increasing demands for technical knowledge and skills. Community colleges will become more entrepreneurial and more flexible, designing new modes of delivery. They will offer more hybrid classes and even stronger student support services.

Data will play an increasingly important role in directing programs and student supports at community colleges, the panelists said, allowing colleges to better track retention, completion, and individual student progress, broken down by various population groups.

The way Dela Rosa sees it, community colleges are entering an age of innovation. “We’re in an environment where there’s a little bit more room for us to explore what community colleges can do,” he said. “I don’t think universities have that kind of nimbleness. A lot of us have taken advantage of [of the opportunity], but we are just at the beginning of it.”

The pandemic proved how quickly community colleges could adapt, Miller said — a skill they must continue to flex to provide the best student support. “We still have a huge access mission for a lot of students,” she said. “I think it’s really important to think about how you become entrepreneurial to serve the students that we have today.”

Grant expressed optimism for such students as she looked ahead: “I see our community colleges as being the economic driver. … We are going to be the vehicle, or the conduit, to lift people out of poverty, to lift them to the next level, to get them to the next step.”

In the end, the panelists agreed, what matters most is community. “I think what excites me most is actually in our name,” Hallingse said. “I love the community that I work and live in … and I want to see a better quality of life and higher living wages for the people who live there, because it’s only going to make my community better.”

Full roundtable discussion (17 minutes)

Full roundtable discussion (17:18)
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