Some community colleges are dropping the word “community” from their name—and with it, Anna Clark argues at Next City, they are dropping an idea and distinction that is very important:
In all, more than 80 schools have cut “community” in the past 30 years, with at least 40 doing so in the last decade. … By assuming a name that has the ring of a traditional four-year school, community colleges are playing into the stereotype that they are less valuable than their counterparts. They give credence to the second-class stigma.
… [Community colleges] deserve to be taken on their own terms. Traditional education metrics, like the time it takes to graduate, aren’t neatly comparable. The Department of Education’s measure of graduation rates is designed for students who enroll in the fall as first-time degree-seeking undergraduates who attend school full time. None of that describes the majority of community college students. Most attend part-time, begin in “off” semesters, transfer to other schools and, in many cases, they are not seeking a degree or certificate when they sign up for classes. All of this distorts the statistics on community colleges, confusing “graduation” as a synonym for “educational completion.”
Because they serve a different population — including working adults, like my parents — their singular value should be recognized. And when it comes down to it, despite the snide nicknames, people get this. A June Gallup poll revealed that Americans are about as likely to describe the education at a community college as “excellent” or “good” as they are to positively rate four-year schools. With the national student loan debt at a preposterous $1.2 trillion, that fact deserves a spotlight.
Clark makes some good points here, and helps draw out some of the distinctions that make community colleges a “community” venture: they’re about serving a wider, more diverse swath of the local population. Less about academic prestige and imposing admissions standards, they emphasize vocational training and accessibility. They provide a starting point for high schoolers eager to get some prerequisites out of the way, and flexible schedules for working adults trying to obtain a degree. I once profiled a community college back in Idaho that provided classes to students with intellectual disabilities. As one mother told me, “The more the student is part of the college life and community, the more the impact on their skill acquisition and their connection to the community at large.”
In turning away from their “community” role and nomenclature, these colleges may in fact be making a dangerous turn away from the local, and from the vocation they serve within that sphere: Clark notes that when Jackson (
Community) College “announced its new name in 2013, officials boasted about how it will make them more marketable to international students. This is a surprising turn for a campus founded in 1928 to serve the people of rural mid-Michigan.”
As Zachary Michael Jack noted last month at Front Porch Republic, academia has grown increasingly rootless over the past several decades, even as the “local” becomes more popular in other venues of society: “America’s colleges and universities, particularly those in suburban and rural areas, continue to militate against students’ love of home. … Community colleges and small liberal arts campuses like mine that draw 75 to 80 percent of their students locally are widely and wrongly disparaged as ‘commuter schools’ by elitists, and yet they have gained market share precisely because they have helped students build bridges between “dual citizenships” at home and at school.”
Clark’s article should prompt us to consider the role that community colleges can, and should, play within their local community. Though four-year universities are important, they are often migratory institutions, drawing young people away from their towns and cities of origin—and often saddling them with mountains of student debt in the process. If community colleges fulfill an important niche in America’s academic society, as Clark argues, we must consider whether this name change constitutes a deeper change in their method, role, and philosophy—and whether that change could have deleterious consequences.