#EndCCStigmaPosted on February 19th, 2019
Consider This Conversation STARTED!
I’m delighted by the response we have received to the #EndCCStigma campaign on Twitter. So many graduates, two-year college professionals, as well as prominent business leaders have chimed in to say they agree: it’s time to end outdated and negative misconceptions about community colleges.
Of the many responses I’ve received via e-mail and on Twitter, one that particularly excited me was an entry in Matt Reed’s wonderful blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” an important regular column in Inside Higher Ed. I have followed Reed’s “Confessions” blog for quite a while, so reading about our campaign there was an early indicator that we have touched a nerve. While lauding the effort and adding his support, Reed raises an important and accurate complication. He points out that the preconceived notions about community colleges are much larger and more complicated than the stigma itself. These biases or prejudices are part of a larger context of competition among K-12 and higher education institutions, as well as complex structures of race and class within our society. I could not agree more, so it’s a thrill to extend this conversation here on my blog.
Head vs. Heart
The experience that put me over the edge to start the #EndCCStigma campaign was an interaction I have often. The attention surrounding #EndCCStigma has shown me that I am not alone. As a community college leader, I am in constant conversation with community leaders, business owners, and elected officials about community college issues. Among these groups, the public perception of community colleges is at an all-time high. I have been a community college professional for most of my adult life. I can’t think of a time when our movement had more “friends.” I regularly encounter evidence that we have changed the intellectual conversation with opinion leaders and employers on the subject of community colleges; however, I am not certain that general perception is this positive. Parents and families want what is best for their kids, and there is an out-moded perception that community colleges aren’t “best.” The President of our state association of community colleges explained this very succinctly while being interviewed for a podcast. For recent high school graduates, “success” is defined as going away and being enrolled in a university. The state and national data tell a different story, and that is the story we are trying to tell with #EndCCStigma.
What’s In A Name?
One of the first responses I received to my use of #EndCCStigma was a marketing/branding suggestion to find a different name for our institutions. Without “throwing shade” on two-year colleges that have gone down this road, my personal view is that this does not address the problem. That’s where my slogan “We’re not going to change our name; we’re going to change your MIND” comes from. Prior to becoming a college administrator, I spent 15 years as a community college English professor. I was a full-time faculty member (and president of a large faculty union) when the fad of dropping the word “community” from the name of two-year colleges began. I am not here to criticize the strategies of other colleges, but I will say this: “community” is the most important part of our college’s identity, and that word isn’t going anywhere. Most community colleges can use some form of the catch phrase that “community” is their middle name. In his blog, Reed refers to the fact that community colleges often have pejorative nicknames. The community college near my childhood home was also “OCC,” and it was often snobbishly called “Only Chance College” by local high school kids. My first community college teaching experience happened at an “LCC,” which some kids called “Last Chance College.” Our community college once had a pejorative nickname that I refuse to repeat (and, frankly, I have only heard from long-time employees… I never hear it in the community). In my experience, the only effective way to deal with these prejudices is to call them out: as Reed notes, that’s the entire point of #EndCCStigma. If we simply drop the word “community” from our names, the negative associations and stereotypes will remain.
The Equity Agenda
Reed’s larger point is about social forces that are much more pervasive than stigma. He is exactly right that a disruption of our society’s assumptions about the “social order” of K-12 and higher ed will overturn a rock with lots of creepy crawly things underneath. As an eternal optimist, I am convinced that even this stark reality is a major strength of community colleges. I am biased of course, but from my perspective, no sector of higher education is doing more to examine and advance equity outcomes. This is a great week to be talking about this as more than 2,000 two-year college professionals gather in Long Beach, CA for the 15th Annual ATD DREAM Conference. Achieving the Dream has advanced the cause of student success and equity in a sustained an unparalleled fashion. By directly and unapologetically highlighting equity and completion gaps, ATD has helped hundreds of colleges and thousands of students address the larger point that Reed makes in his blog post. Add to ATD the growing list of reform networks and organizations working this important problem–The Aspen Institute, Jobs for the Future, CCRC, Completion by Design, AACC, and others–and you have a critical mass of community college practitioners who own this larger responsibility and enthusiastically attack it on a daily basis.
I’ll end by thanking Matt Reed for extending the conversation on #EndCCStigma to this larger and important context. This is a very exciting time to be doing this work. But as he points out, there is a lot of work to do!
Steve Robinson, Ph.D.
P.S. The WTOL reporter interviewing me about #EndCCStigma in the photo above is a community college grad! Jonathan Monk attended nearby Northwest State Community College, one of our awesome partner schools here in Northwest Ohio. Note that Jonathan proudly puts his community college experience in his bio on the website of WTOL! Special thanks to Jonathan for coming to Owens to discuss our #EndCCStigma campaign as it was getting off the ground.