CCsmart: A Positive Way to Address Community College Stigma
Over the past ten years, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) has reported a cumulative 30% decline in student participation at public two-year colleges since fall 2011. While these results are inflated by a significant number of colleges moving from a two-year public classification to a four-year public classification during this same time period, the actual declines in colleges most of us think of as “community colleges” are still staggering. For colleges awarding primarily associate-type degrees and certificates, data show the past decade of participation has declined by 19% or 1.33 million students, with 8% of the loss resulting directly from the COVID-19 pandemic (see Figure 1.0). Students attending these colleges full-time declined by 29%, and part-time attendance declined by 10%.
Lumina’s Stronger Nation report found that nearly 40% of working-aged adults ages 25 – 34 have no higher education degree or credential, and for all working-aged adults, two-year colleges contributed the least toward America’s current 51.9% attainment rate. This decade of enrollment declines at community colleges added to the NSC’s most recent spring 2022 estimates that show yet another 3% decline in community college enrollment. This drop tells us that more and more recent high school graduates and older adults are choosing not to go to college and fewer than ever are choosing to go to a community college. While jobs are available, we know that good jobs—the ones with better pay, health insurance, and other benefits—require post-secondary education degrees and credentials, and the more of those, the better.
Declines in the college-going population are not just an issue impacting the colleges themselves—it is everyone’s problem. As a nation, we are facing an increased need for a skilled, trained workforce while simultaneously facing decreased student participation in college. Decreased participation in public open-access community colleges ultimately means that fewer underrepresented students are in the education pipeline—widening an already wide economic race gap and lessening the chances of economic mobility for all low-income students.
A recent Gallup survey showed that more than half of all unenrolled adults report that the cost of a college degree is a very important reason they have not continued their education.1 While college cost may be top of mind when it comes to college access, enrollment declines at two-year colleges show it isn’t the only factor affecting a person’s decision to attend college.
Aside from the pandemic stop-outs, it is hard to pinpoint direct reasons why community college enrollments are in such a decline. Community college remains the most affordable choice (avg: $3,800/year) in higher education and is 40% of the average tuition costs at four-year public institutions. Year after year, in surveys of Americans’ perceptions of higher education, community colleges receive high praise and high marks—Americans view the quality of community colleges similarly to that of four-year schools. However, more recent studies find that while the public’s general opinion of community colleges is high, going to a community college isn’t a choice that students want for themselves or that parents want for their own children—community college is good for everyone else, just not me or my child.
In 2019, The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) published the results of a national survey on perceptions of community college stigma as reported by secondary school counselors for the groups shown in Figure 2.0. Over 2,200 high school guidance counselors participated in the survey. In the opinion of high school guidance counselors, students and their parents had high stigma against community colleges. Counselors rated 60% of parents and 54% of students against going to a community college as a pathway to a bachelor’s degree.2
In 2021, a state-wide study of community college stigma in Illinois worked with high school students who were in the process of making their college decisions. 3This study found community college stigma to be a top factor in a student’s college decision. In fact, it was as significant as other factors such as college cost, types of degree programs, academic achievements, personal aspirations, and the influence of parents and family. The finding held true across all socioeconomic groups, races, and among those who were and were not familiar with community colleges. This mixed methods study concluded that many high school graduates, and their parents, were ignoring community college due to stigma, and provided recommendations to help colleges overcome community college stigma:
- highlight previous successes of students
- establish relationships with local students at an early age
- provide a stronger marketing presence in the community
- dedicate time and resources to creating an engaging environment and enjoyable campus life
According to these studies, reducing community college stigma should be top of mind for community college leaders. At PTK we know first-hand what a huge problem it is. Earlier this year, we awarded the PTK Founders Medal for the best essay on the importance of a community college education. Over 425 essays were submitted from students across the nation, and of these, 352 mentioned overcoming community college stigma as part of their college journey.
PTK’s 2021-2022 International Officer leadership team, a group of five peer-elected students from across the nation, decided as part of their work to address community college stigma. But true to what PTK represents, they did not want to use the negative word “stigma” as part of their campaign—they wanted to focus on the positive aspects of these colleges—the opportunities found there and what community college had done for them and for students like them. They developed #CCSmart or Community College Smart as an awareness marketing campaign of national scope. The goal of the brand is to change the conversation about community colleges, promote student-led advocacy of community colleges, and provide reliable information to the public about community college opportunities—making the choice to go there a smart start to your career and your life. The students developed a plan and budget for consideration of the PTK Board of Directors. In January 2022, the Board approved $250,000 to seed their efforts.
Over the last year, PTK has created a brand and logo, digital advertising strategy, student/chapter collateral, and a website with workforce resources, transfer resources, financial assistance information and more. CCsmart.org launched July 2022 and is a hub of resources for adults, high school students and their parents who are thinking about community college, and a starting point for anyone exploring a new career or searching for a shaping point to a current one. PTK has selected three smaller pilot states for the digital strategy—Wyoming, Iowa, and Louisiana; and nationally, PTK’s goal is to have at least half of all PTK chapters actively working with CCSmart over the next few years.
- Gallup (2022). The State of Higher Education 2022 Report https://www.gallup.com/analytics/391829/state-of-higher-education-2022.aspx ↩︎
- National Association for College Admission Counseling. (2019). Community Colleges and Transfers. https://www.nacacnet.org/news-publications/Research/community-collegesand-transfer/ ↩︎
- Griffith, Bradley (2021). Community College Stigma and its Effect on Illinois High School Seniors’ College Choice. Doctoral dissertation, University of Arkansas. ↩︎