A few months ago, I attended a theater performance at Seminole Community College in Lake Mary. As I drove onto campus, I saw a car on fire on the other side of a small pond. Black smoke billowed. Looking closer, I realized that I was watching the training of professional firefighters. After graduation, these students would directly serve the public.
Watching the class in action, I was reminded of the community college's great practical value, a fact the general public and the media often overlook. As a former community college instructor, I take offense when I hear people disparage these schools or discount their value.
In 2009, community colleges offer one of the best hopes of turning around their individual states' and the nation's faltering economies. This is precisely the point Douglas Gould argued in a recent commentary intended for community college leaders. He is the president of a strategic communications company that consults extensively with community college systems in seven states and other higher education groups. One of his company's surveys of more than 4,500 people around the nation indicates the public fails to understand the core mission and value of these two-year institutions and their substantial impact on a region's economic viability.
Gould said that community college leaders and their supporters can partly blame themselves for the public's attitude. He said that two main misconceptions undermine public support and, in turn, negatively affect legislative policy toward the colleges.
"Most people don't realize that community colleges are typically part of a state higher education system and the state government holds the purse strings and should take responsibility for the colleges' finances," Gould said, pointing out the first misconception.
The second misconception, he said, is that "few people understand the macroeconomic benefits of community colleges. The public sees that those institutions help individuals get ahead, but it fails to understand how they improve the community and economy."
Gould said his survey showed that several other misconceptions hurt two-year colleges. When the colleges tout the advantages of open enrollment, many people assume the schools lack any academic standards. When the colleges talk about offering adult basic education, many people think the colleges are repeating what taxpayers paid to have done in the K-12 system. When the colleges promote their role as providers of English-as-a-second-language classes, many people automatically assume the schools are enabling illegal immigration.
Focus group participants, Gould said, expressed disbelief when he showed them empirical evidence that community colleges favorably compared with four-year colleges in terms of class size, personalized service and cost.
Except for those who have personal experiences with community colleges, many people rarely appreciate the broad function of these schools.
"Community colleges play a crucial and unique role in higher education, serving as gateways of opportunity and key players in building a stronger economy," Gould said. "Community colleges level the playing field by giving anyone who works hard the chance to get a college education and allow people of all stages at all stages of their lives to be lifelong learners. Community colleges are a distinctly American creation, helping people fulfill a very American value: the opportunity of people to better themselves."
With state and local economies seemingly on a long-term downward trend, Gould said that community colleges will become more important than ever, and they will need to become smarter about marketing themselves.
"Community colleges," he said, "need to educate the public about their economic impact: how they train and retrain workers, help align the work force with employers' needs, and put money in the pockets of people who are struggling to get ahead. Rather than suffering from cutbacks, community colleges need to expand in tough economic times. Out-of-work or underemployed people must be trained for jobs that require skilled workers. Furthermore, getting people into better jobs can solve a state's budget challenges by increasing tax revenues."
Gould argues that if the nation's community colleges are to help themselves and fulfill their potential to become major players in resurrecting their states' economies, they must "unite around a common message and adopt a statewide policy campaign."
That is good advice for Florida's community colleges.