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Mollye Miller Photography

Olivia Yates, a sophomore at the Community College of Baltimore County, says she’s not ashamed of her choice to attend a community college. Both of her parents went to the college and supported her decision to apply there in her senior year of high school and take advantage of the inexpensive tuition. But when she and a friend heard about seniors at their former high school celebrating acceptances to universities and getting scholarships last year, they found themselves commiserating about how bad it made them feel about themselves.

“I shouldn’t feel bad just because I chose to go to community college,” she said. “I’m a community college student, and I know that the education I’m getting is solid.” She was frustrated she felt down about herself “out of this false idea” of the prestige of four-year universities and the notion that they are inherently better than two-year colleges.

Yates is now part of a group of students at the college who are producing a podcast devoted to examining the question of what qualifies as a good school, and who decides.

“I would say I go to a really good college, but I want to know … what does it mean to other people?” said Yates, a producer of the podcast.

Keith Anstead, a senior producer of the podcast and a fourth-year student at the college, which is commonly referred to as CCBC, said the goal of the project is to put “the idea of higher education under a microscope.”

The Good School podcast team came together in fall 2020 to explore, through audio storytelling, different beliefs about what makes a college prestigious or what fuels public perceptions of certain colleges being better than others. Listeners will hear the stories of different people navigating the higher education system, including a parent of a high school student, a high school guidance counselor and an adjunct instructor.

“It’s not just sitting behind a microphone and saying, ‘I don’t like this about the college system,’” sophomore and producer Katlyn Drescher said, explaining how she and her classmates are reading up on the roles of college rankings, standardized tests scores and college admissions criteria in shaping the reputations of colleges. “We’re really diving in, going into articles, going into scholarly sources and really seeing not just the anecdotal problems about the college system but really the systematic problems.”

The project started when Beth Baunoch, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at the college, decided to create a new virtual podcast production house dedicated to “lifting perceived barriers” to podcasting felt by her students while also offering them training.

Baunoch, who is also coordinator of the media studies program, won a $40,000 grant last year to jump-start the project through the Mellon/ACLS Community College Faculty Fellowship program. She selected a team of 12 students to work on the yearlong project.

Four of the students chose to stay past the duration of the extracurricular project to bring Good School to fruition as paid interns. They’re meeting on Zoom, interviewing higher ed experts, researching, editing tape and promoting the podcast to future listeners on social media. Baunoch said the first episodes may air at the end of this academic year, but she wants to give students as much time as they need to do rigorous, “immersive” journalism.

“They’re all doing this for the very first time, so there’s a huge learning curve, especially in terms of really in-depth research and investigation, in terms of learning to build a story, which I think has been one of the major challenges for my students,” Baunoch said.

Students are chronicling the views and experiences of various people and having them record audio diaries over time to offer listeners a multifaceted view of the higher education system. For example, they’ll get a glimpse into the stresses experienced by a high school counselor guiding students through the college admissions process.

Baunoch’s own daughter, a high school senior, deliberates in a podcast interview about how much she and her mother are willing to do to be accepted into a “prestigious” school, including paying for more SAT tutoring.

“I do like the idea of going to a school that has some prestige and a low acceptance rate,” she said.

The students currently have promotional mini episodes on social media introducing themselves and the story behind the project. They discussed a range of ideas for their podcast topic, but one theme kept resurfacing: the stigma they felt—or were made to feel—about attending a community college.

“We all had our stories,” said Kathleen Roberts, a sophomore and the podcast’s social media strategist. “And we all felt like we were the people who should be telling this story.”

Roberts said her mother nudged her to explore her career options at an affordable institution before transferring to a university because she was unsure about what she wanted to study. She felt “lazy” for starting out at a community college instead of a four-year university and envied her friends settling into new dorm rooms and having the quintessential “college experience.”

Her perspective shifted while working on the podcast.

“Now I’m super confident in my decision,” she said.

Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit focused on community college student success, noted that while community colleges are “highly valued” by local policy makers and employers, those positive perceptions are not necessarily enough to change “the conversations at the kitchen table between a parent and their child when they’re thinking about college.”

“From a societal values perspective, no matter what product it is … there’s less of a value on something that is easy to attain, so to speak, or easy to get into, nonselective and affordable,” she said. “I think it’s [the] student voice that needs to lead the way forward to end the stigma around choosing a community college as a first choice for postsecondary education.”

CCBC students aren’t the only community college students trying to combat the stigma about the institutions. Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina produced viral TikTok videos that feature students dancing while sharing insights about the perks of attending community college. Steve Robinson, president of Lansing Community College in Michigan, launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #EndCCStigma when he served as president of Owens Community College in Ohio in 2019. Community colleges also now have a vocal advocate in the White House—First Lady Jill Biden, who teaches at Northern Virginia Community College.

Baunoch believes this moment is the perfect time to produce a podcast like Good School.

Drescher pointed out that she paid no tuition in her first year of college because of the free college program available to CCBC students, yet fellow students at her high school still referred to her college as the “13th grade.” Many of her high school peers came from low-income backgrounds and would have benefited from no- or low-cost tuition, she said, but the prevailing attitude toward CCBC was “It’s kind of where the kids who don’t care about school go.”

Baunoch says there’s still work to be done to improve the public perception of community colleges.

“I feel like community colleges are the butt of so many jokes,” she said. “Most of the students I talk to who feel confident about the fact that they’ve made this wise choice, they still have some level of shame in coming here.”

She hopes the podcast will not only tell nuanced stories about higher education but also show off the “talent” and “drive” of her students and counter the stigma associated with their institutions.

“Community college is a starting point for students who have full lives and who are busy people and don’t necessarily have the time to dedicate to being on campus and involved in all the extracurriculars,” said Anstead, the senior producer. “I think for me … the opportunity to produce a story like this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Drescher wants to use the podcast to send a message to other students that “you’re in charge of your education,” she said. “And labels and the term ‘good school’ is what you really make of it at the end of the day.”

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