Pikes Peak Community College
Pikes Peak Community College is poised to transform into Pikes Peak State College after Colorado governor Jared Polis signed a bill last month to change the college’s name.
Campus leaders discussed dropping “community” from the college’s name for roughly a decade, but those discussions crystallized in the past two years, said Lance Bolton, president of the college.
The rebranding addresses what Bolton believes to be an unfortunate reality—that prospective students see community colleges as a “lesser” academic option that provide an inferior education and less marketable degrees.
Bolton said students quickly see the value of community college once they enroll, but getting them to enroll is another story. He noted that some high school teachers advise students against attending community colleges and describe them as second-rate options. He also noted that media depictions of community colleges can hurt their reputation and influence public perceptions. He pointed to the popular television show Community. Bolton felt the sitcom, about a ragtag group of friends at a community college that ran for six seasons, portrayed community college students as “misfits and oddballs.”
“We have a long-held perception that community college has stigma attached to it among many of the students that we’re actually trying to serve,” he said. “This is primarily the issue we’re trying to overcome.”
Community college leaders that have left the word “community” behind in the last decade, in favor of shorter, snappier names, hope to modernize their image and boost enrollment. Some college leaders have embraced the move as an opportunity to signal ways in which community colleges are expanding beyond their traditional offerings to meet student and workforce needs. Others have held fast to their original names, arguing that the term “community college” best encapsulates their mission.
Steve Robinson, president of Lansing Community College, said he understands why college leaders, nervous about negative perceptions of community colleges, would make the shift. But he believes the word “community” captures the colleges’ biggest selling point—the commitment to serving local students and their families and meeting regional workforce needs. Robinson launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #EndCCStigma in 2019. Other community college advocates have taken to Tik Tok to defend and praise the institutions, producing viral videos with students dancing and listing the benefits of a community college education.
A ‘Teaching Problem, Not a Marketing Problem’
“I think this problem is a lot bigger than branding and nomenclature,” Robinson said. “I think it’s a teaching problem, not a marketing problem. The catchphrase of our antistigma campaign is ‘We’re not going to change our name. We’re going to change your mind.’ 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.”
Community colleges have enjoyed relatively greater national recognition and appreciation in recent years, as numerous states have made free community college available to their residents to increase the number of graduates and attract major employers. First Lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, has been a strong proponent for the institutions on the national stage. Community colleges have also been increasingly recognized for their role in workforce development as industries scramble to fill labor shortages in the wake of the pandemic.
But even as community colleges are being praised for filling an important need, they have also been hurting financially. Enrollments nationwide plummeted in response to the pandemic, compounding a steady decline of 14.8 percent since 2019, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Robinson noted that higher ed leaders thought students would flock to community colleges as the shift to online instruction during the pandemic made the idea of paying pricey tuition to a four-year college while learning remotely at home less appealing. But that didn’t happen. Instead students at community colleges, often low-income and first-generation students and working adults, struggled with online learning, job losses and family caretaking responsibilities—and they left college in large numbers.
Enrollment at Pikes Peak, for example, fell 16 percent over the last two years—from 13,655 students in fall 2019 to 12,053 in fall 2021—and faculty members retired in droves during the public health crisis, Bolton said. He hopes the rebranding will appeal to students, attract new faculty members and draw more donor dollars to the institution.
Signaling New Offerings
Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, believes the name changes are less driven by stigma than by the burgeoning movement to offer baccalaureate degrees at community colleges.
Two dozen states currently allow community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees to students who may want to earn a four-year degree at their local two-year institution without transferring to a university. A 2021 report by New America, a liberal think tank, notes that the trend has rapidly accelerated, with 12 states beginning to permit these degrees in the last decade.
“There’s a little bit of branding work I think that some colleges are doing to show that they are more comprehensive in their degree offerings,” Stout said. “They’re still keeping open access and the DNA of the community college at the center, but they’re looking to signal that they’re offering beyond the associate degree.”
Pikes Peak offers three baccalaureate degrees, in emergency services management, nursing and paramedicine, and Bolton hopes to double that number in the next couple of years. He said the name change was partly to help baccalaureate students who might have a hard time explaining to employers in states where community college baccalaureate degrees don’t exist how they got a four-year degree at a community college.
“We did feel like we were better serving our graduates with this name change,” he said.
Stout also noted that many community colleges were founded approximately 50 years ago and may be rebranding as they hit that half-century milestone.
That was the case for Oakton Community College in Illinois, where the Board of Trustees voted last August to change its name to Oakton College as part of a wider rebranding effort. The name change had been discussed since 2019, the college’s 50th anniversary.
“It was time,” said Katherine Sawyer, chief advancement officer at Oakton. “Those milestone years just make you think, ‘Let’s figure out what the breath of fresh air is.’ Those milestone birthdays, they make you kind of sit back and go, ‘Who am I becoming?’ I think that’s true for organizations, too.”
She emphasized that the name change did not mean a change in the college’s community-oriented mission.
“We remain true to our mission,” she said. “We’re here to serve the community, even more so today than ever.”
Bolton argued that the name change at Pikes Peak will actually enable the college to serve more of the community by attracting students who otherwise would not have gone to college.
“When we think about our mission in our community, we’re not concerned about competing with the four-year institutions,” he said. But a lot of students are actually choosing between going to community college and “doing nothing” to pursue a degree. “If a higher percentage of those students end up deciding that they will enroll because they feel more proud of the fact that they’re attending Pikes Peak State College, then I think we’re better serving our community and in no way are we pulling back from our community.”
Jeff DeFranco, president and superintendent of Lake Tahoe Community College, said a name change was formally considered and ultimately rejected by the college’s Board of Trustees over a decade ago and has come up cyclically over the years.
He said Lake Tahoe kept its name because of brand recognition—prospective students know the college as LTCC—but also a desire to continue publicly embracing the college’s communal role in its title.
He noted that the college, and community colleges in general, demonstrated its value to its surrounding communities in new ways during the pandemic. For example, early on in the pandemic, Lake Tahoe Community College hosted the only mass COVID-19–testing center serving El Dorado County residents and later became a vaccination site.
The pandemic “created an opportunity to re-show who we are and what we do for the community,” he said.
He believes reducing community college stigma and enticing more students to these institutions is about emphasizing the ways community colleges serve the public good.
“That’s definitely a conversation in the industry of how do we remove the stigma of going to community college,” he said. “Some people maybe say, ‘Well, we’re going to call ourselves such-and-such college, and that will remove that stigma.’ But I think I’m more focused on, let’s just tell the story of why community colleges are good for students and communities and why they’re affordable but valuable options. We don’t need to change our name to do that. We just need to tell our story better.”