Erasing the Community College Stigma

With the higher education landscape rapidly shifting away from traditional norms, the notion of what constitutes a “good school” should be reconsidered.
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  • A new student-run podcast seeks to dispel the stigma surrounding community colleges.
  • The stereotype suggests community colleges are inferior and serve unmotivated students.
  • Some colleges dropped "community" from their name to avoid the stereotype and reflect the addition of bachelor's degrees.
  • Trends in workforce development and credentialing show the strengths of community colleges.

Discouraged. Depressed. Inadequate.

That's how Akira Tisdale felt about attending a community college. With her friends and classmates heading off to four-year colleges, staying home to take classes at the local community college was the last thing Tisdale wanted to do.

But when the admissions and financial aid dust settled, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) was her only choice. So she went, grudgingly, refusing to make friends or immerse herself in campus life.

Gradually, she did, getting involved in numerous activities and joining several school committees. Once she decided to fully embrace the opportunities before her, Tisdale found a happy academic home. One of her professors called her the "poster child" for the college and said she's "one of the most well-known students on campus."

Three associate degrees later — yes, three — Tisdale is leaving just as grudgingly as she entered, heading off to McDaniel College to pursue her bachelor's degree.

"I could not have made a better choice," Tisdale reflected in a conversation with BestColleges. "This is where I needed to be. I'm sad to be leaving."

Before she does, Tisdale is busy telling the story of how community colleges change lives like CCBC did for her. She and a few fellow students run a podcast called "Good School," an effort to "break down the stigma around community colleges."

Once a skeptic, Tisdale's now an evangelist.

"There are no good connotations with community colleges," she said, "so that's why I love talking about CCBC and how I've grown."

What's Behind the Community College Stigma?

Just over 40% of U.S. undergraduates — roughly 7.7 million students — attend community colleges. Those figures don't capture the millions of additional non-degree students taking a course or two or pursuing a certificate. Suffice it to say, it's a well-worn path within the higher education landscape.

But despite its popularity, the community college lacks respect. It's often viewed as a last resort reserved for the unmotivated and the underprepared.

"From an early age, a mindset of educational elitism tries to convince us that an objective hierarchy of schools exists, with the Ivies at the top and community colleges at the very bottom, just below clown schools," wrote Thomas Kozma in The Daily Targum, the student newspaper at Rutgers University.

Quotation mark

Bradley Griffith, fitness director at John A. Logan College in Illinois, wrote his dissertation on this pervasive "stigma" plaguing community colleges. He discovered this negative perception has a "significant impact" on students' college decisions.

"Community college stigma is a major issue," Griffith told the news bureau at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where he received his doctorate. "A lot of students believe they are too good for community college, or they could never attend there because their parents expect better or their peers will make fun of them. As community college leaders face enrollment problems, they need to realize that stigma is a real reason why they miss out on a lot of students."

To circumvent this problem, some community colleges have dropped "community" from their name. In 2010, Maui Community College changed its moniker to the University of Hawaii Maui College. Brevard Community College in Florida became Eastern Florida State College in 2013. A year later, Henry Ford Community College axed "community."

In Colorado, Pikes Peak Community College is poised to become Pikes Peak State College, pending approval by the state Legislature. A news release cites the college's desire "to modernize its name in order to increase the perception of its value among students and employers, and to effectively market the institution to help foster enrollment growth, build partnerships, and increase overall competitiveness in the region."

Beyond marketing concerns, the name changes often reflect the addition of bachelor's degrees to the curriculum.

Nationwide, community colleges in 25 states now offer baccalaureate degrees, and more than 20,000 students earned that credential in 2019. Critics decry such moves as mission creep — curricular kudzu — while college officials claim it's a logical evolution and an attempt to better serve the needs of their constituencies.

Steve Robinson, president of Lansing Community College, isn't buying the name-change argument and, in fact, took to social media in 2019 to promote the #EndCCStigma campaign.

"The catchphrase of our anti-stigma campaign is 'We're not going to change our name. We're going to change your mind,'" Robinson told Inside Higher Ed. "It's a teaching problem to just let everybody know what a fantastic and transformational idea the community college is. From my perspective, 'community' is the coolest part of our name."

Defining What Constitutes a 'Good School'

Tisdale and her fellow CCBC students are doing their own part to destigmatize community colleges.

Their "Good School" podcast, slated to debut this fall, explores issues in higher education such as admissions, rankings, and faculty in an attempt to discover what, exactly, constitutes a "good school" and where community colleges fit into that conversation.

Beth Baunoch, assistant professor and Media Studies Program coordinator at CCBC, came up with the idea to involve a diverse array of students in an "investigative journalistic" podcast program and won a Mellon Foundation grant to underwrite the effort.

The thrust of the show — and its name — found its origin in a comment from one of the students, Katie Roberts, who mentioned a friend who attends a "good school." Baunoch and her students had a "lightbulb moment."

"We said, 'Well, what is a good school?'" Baunoch told BestColleges. "A lot of people say that, but they don't understand what it means."

While the aim of the podcast isn't explicitly to dispel the stigma around community colleges, Baunoch said, it's certainly a tacit outcome.

"I don't think it's a main goal to do that," she said, "but I do think, without saying it specifically or blatantly, that through this podcast and seeing the students work, we are debunking the myth."

Baunoch's students themselves arrived at CCBC harboring such thoughts, buying into the stereotypes and preconceived notions about the nature of community colleges.

"When I found out that seniors at my high school had gone to more selective schools or schools that would be considered better," recent CCBC graduate Olivia Yates told BestColleges, "I kind of felt bad because I was like, 'Whoa, I just kind of applied to a community college. Maybe I should have tried harder.'"

Roberts had a similar experience.

"I felt like I was taking the easy way out," she said.

Sandra Kurtinitis, CCBC's president, acknowledges such stereotypes, though she quickly dismisses them as baseless.

She's spent her entire career — more than 50 years — at community colleges. Fresh out of graduate school, she landed her first teaching job at a community college, fully intending to pursue a more traditional academic path. But she quickly "fell in love with the magic of the open-door mission."

She's been a champion for community colleges ever since.

"I think we do a bad job of marketing ourselves," Kurtinitis told BestColleges, "so we allow that lazy tradition of 'Well, if I can't go anyplace else, I'll go to the local community college' to continue. I sort of chuckle over it because I've got 45-50,000 students here who have a different impression."

Kurtinitis said she has no intention of dropping "community" from the college's name but has pursued the baccalaureate option to no avail. The college's attempts to establish bachelor's degree programs in "occupational" fields such as language interpretation were stymied by politics.

"We were strongly repelled by the university system because they saw it as mission creep," Kurtinitis said. "We did not. If nobody is doing it, that's a vacuum we would like to fill for our students."

Quotation mark

Tisdale, who's planning to pursue a bachelor's degree in American Sign Language at McDaniel College, said she would have stayed at CCBC had that option been available.

"One hundred percent," she said. "They would not be able to get rid of me."

It turns out the setback might ultimately prove inconsequential. Recently, the state of Maryland, where 95% of CCBC graduates live, announced it would no longer require a bachelor's degree for roughly half of its jobs, following the lead of major corporations facing critical shortages of skilled workers in fields that require some form of training and credential but not a four-year degree. Community colleges, Kurtinitis noted, are well-positioned to address that demand given their emphasis on workforce development.

"Google, Amazon — all these big companies have recognized that you don't need a bachelor's degree to do many of the functions that they need done," she said. "An associate degree is fine. Certifications are fine. This is a huge mindset change within our country, and it lends credibility to what we do here."

That mindset shift might signal the eventual decline of the community college stigma.

The traditional four-year, residential college experience continues to give way to unbundled, stackable credentials sought by consumers who want guaranteed, fast-track on-ramps to well-paying careers, which sounds a lot like what community colleges offer.

Some liberal arts colleges have even engaged in a form of reverse mission creep, emulating the community college model by offering certificate programs in tech and vocational fields to help students graduating with degrees in art history and philosophy land a job.

When compared to four-year institutions using their definitions of excellence — admissions rates, endowment war chests, SAT scores, class rank — community colleges suffer.

But when the barometer of quality becomes whether or not an institution serves the specific needs of individual students and enables them to achieve their goals quickly and cost-effectively, whether that's joining the workforce or pursuing further degrees, then perhaps community colleges do fall under the heading of "good schools."

Higher education is far from a one-size-fits-all industry, and it's up to each student to define what's "good" for them.

"My CCBC journey is not the typical college journey," Tisdale mused, "but whose is, really?"