This is community colleges’ mission moment

The fall term is upon us and COVID-19 still looms. Before students began heading back to (in-person and virtual) campus over the past few weeks, two in five of them were weighing their options for the coming semester.

Some incoming freshmen have made a clean break from campus by taking a gap year. Others are opting for a different track, but still in higher ed: community college.

At a time of intense societal soul-searching, community colleges are facing a “mission moment.” It’s a time when all the conditions come together to prove the concept, so to speak, of an institution’s value.

For decades, community colleges have provided students with educational access and career training at affordable costs. It’s more than a business model–it’s an important mission. And right now, at the height of our COVID-19 economy, that mission aligns perfectly with what millions of people in our country need. Reports indicate that community college enrollment–down around 5% so far– isn’t falling as drastically as 30% drop that some administrators expected a few months ago. Those numbers may change as more details emerge in the coming weeks. But I’ve spoken also with a handful of community college leaders, who report an uptick for the coming year.

The challenge is that community colleges get nearly 53% of their annual funding from state and local governments. Another 30% comes from the national purse. With 27 million people out of work and the unemployment rate north of 10%, the public is strapped. It’s very likely we’ll see funding shortfalls for public institutions in our future.

To ensure the door of educational opportunity is open for the broadest range of people, community colleges would be well-served to cultivate increased philanthropy by turning this mission moment into mission momentum.

In making your case to potential donors, here are three ideas to get started:

  1. Broaden your base (of alumni).

Start by thinking about your audience segments. Who currently gets counted as an alumnus/alumna? Is it anyone who’s completed a class? A semester? A two-year degree or training program? Given the expansive nature of community colleges, I’d advocate for considering anyone who’s ever taken a single credit hour.

The reason is simple. Consider the story of John B. Smith, Jr., who left $2.3 million to Cerritos College for woodworking scholarships in his estate. By all accounts, Smith flew under the radar as a college student. Not many recalled seeing him or studying with him. But at some point, in the decades after he left, Smith decided that Cerritos College made a big enough difference in his life to structure his bequests accordingly.

  1. Connect the personal story to the bigger narrative.

There’s a student right now–either on your campus or in a digital classroom–whose life will change this year because of you, your faculty, and your donors. More than likely, there are hundreds or thousands of them.

You already track down these stories for fundraising appeals and impact communications. Chances are good, too, that you work to make sure each story is personal and donor-centric.

At a higher level, these personal stories also should start new conversations with your donors about the fundamental importance of community colleges. Nearly 12 million students attend one every year–that’s about 40% of all undergraduate students in America. First-generation students make up 30% of that total. Students with disabilities account for 20%. Minority communities are broadly represented, comparatively speaking. Transfer (articulation) agreements make it increasingly simple for students to carry their credits to four-year institutions. Industry partnerships give graduates a direct line to rewarding careers in advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and many other skilled professions. On top of all that, community college tuition is $7,000 less on average per year than in-state tuition at a four-year public university.

For mission momentum, connect the personal to the “universal.” Help your prospective donor see the bigger narrative of what your mission means to the world.

  1. Measure your audience’s attitudes.

You’ve got a broader base of support. You’ve refocused your story and strengthened your message. Now it’s time to launch a campaign. But maybe you’ve been holding off on appeals or campaigns since the pandemic started. Or maybe you’re not sure your community of potential supporters wants to help at this time. I think they do, but there’s only one way to find out: Ask them.

If you need proof before the campaign, you can field a donor insight survey to gauge sentiment. You might ask, “What causes matter most to you right now?” and even more directly, “Do you feel community colleges play a role in reducing economic and social inequality through affordable education?” People are already thinking about the big issues, so this can be your opportunity to hear from them directly.

Or, you can try a donor experience survey after the campaign results come back. Follow up with your respondents–recurring or first-time donors–and see how everything went for them. “How would you score the overall experience of making a gift to [institution name]?” and “What factors inspired you to make a gift at this time?” You’re looking for tangible examples of how your mission and your communication of that mission influenced their decision.

What’s clear is that the pandemic is loosening people’s attachment to what’s considered normal. Over the past year, I’ve been working with one of the largest, most diverse community colleges in the country. And what keeps me inspired is seeing how this “practical” choice is rapidly becoming the essential choice for anyone stalled or disrupted by the COVID-19 economy.


If you’d like to discuss these issues, please contact Jason, by clicking here.

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This is community colleges’ mission moment

The fall term is upon us and COVID-19 still looms. Before students began heading back to (in-person and virtual) campus over the past few weeks, two in five of them were weighing their options for the coming semester. Some incoming freshmen have made a clean break from campus by taking…