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It is an undeniable fact that many community colleges across the country -- especially urban, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse colleges -- have been struggling in recent years with enrollments that have been declining at sometimes alarming rates. In response, enrollment management directors and senior administrators, along with boards and other stakeholders, have developed emergency plans of action to stem the tide of attrition and to bring new students into their institutions’ classrooms.

What seems to be the first line of attack for a number of community colleges is to go after their new competitor or former partner, the four-year public institution to whom they've lost the majority of their traditional college-age student demographic, and actively attempt to woo such students. To do so, they need to focus on those students who are academically strong enough to go directly to the four-year institution and also financially stable enough to not rely on Pell Grants for 75 percent or more of their tuition payments.

That, in theory, makes lots of sense. After all, those are the most attractive students. They are what success stories are made of. They graduate within reasonable time frames. One can highlight them in marketing brochures.

Yet to attract that coveted student demographic, community colleges must also spend significantly more on developing and offering many new programs and certificates. They must also change their course schedule systems to create a traditional college campus atmosphere. And they must offer more campus activities, social-media recruiting, events and trips.

Community college leaders see such programs and certificates as the most important weapon in their arsenal to fight four-year universities in the enrollment battle over the relatively small group of more elite students. Indeed, the needs of those students have begun to dominate the planning and offerings of some urban community colleges as they work to increase their overall enrollments, market value and name recognition. In short, the urban community college is becoming gentrified.

But while gentrification may or may not be a beneficial economic development for an urban neighborhood -- a topic for another time and place -- this approach does not generally work for urban community colleges.

It fails for two reasons. First, the approach itself is flawed. It is costly and time-consuming and not supported by data or other evidence. It takes, on average, six months to a year to develop a new program and move it to the approval process. And it takes even longer to develop all of the new courses necessary for that new program.

Furthermore, new programs require consultants, marketing and sometimes additional equipment, staff and faculty members. Generally, a new program doesn’t generate significantly higher enrollment numbers for, at best, two years and often four or five years. And while a small increase in enrollment and the subsequent benefit to the colleges’ standing with the public and its external stakeholders may arise from the adoption of such new programs, any revenue benefit is neither sustained nor offset by the extensive investment and expense of the time, money and labor required to create, approve and launch the programs -- which, in many cases have not thoroughly undergone prior market analysis or needs-assessment research.

Second, besides developing new programs, urban community colleges are also attempting to revamp themselves and emulate or recreate a traditional four-year university campus experience. They set up a traditional course schedules with classes meeting two or even three times a week for 50 minutes or 75 minutes each rather than once a week for several hours, which commuter students prefer. They move more classes to the daytime and hire more student affairs personnel in order to expand campus activities, trips, events and services. That shift may benefit younger, full-time students who spend most of their time on the campus, socializing and working at part-time jobs. But it comes at the expense of vital services such as personal academic and career advising, extended testing center hours to help support makeup tests and the like that support students from all demographics but must be cut to pay for the changes.

Meanwhile, neither new programs nor turning a community college into a university campus will adequately address the enrollment challenge. Generally, revenue- and space-constrained urban community colleges cannot adequately compete with comprehensive universities, which are able to eliminate any student anxieties about credit transfer and offer a wider spectrum of programs, support services, extracurricular activities, career services and internships, as well as greater resources for scholarships. Directly competing with four-year public universities for the relatively small group of academically highly qualified and financially well-situated students -- who have a true choice as a freshman between attending the university or the community college -- usually proves to be a losing proposition for the community college.

Further, many state universities have now begun to change their first two years of general education requirements, making it easier for students to start at a four-year institution. Only community colleges that have fully negotiated seamless 2+2 curriculum maps and transfer agreements for each major with a four-year school can actually offer students a better, lower-cost option for the first two years. Barring those agreements already being in place, students fare better by not transferring but rather starting at the university as freshmen if they can, as otherwise they will inevitably lose credits.

Community colleges have developed attractive-sounding associates’ programs to entice high school seniors, an ever-shrinking demographic, to consider community colleges as the first stop on their higher education journey. The problem is that many of those areas of study require a student to obtain a bachelor’s or even master’s degree in order to have a realistic chance at employment. And without the aforementioned seamless 2+2 transfer agreements already in place, which often take at least a year to negotiate and sign, credits will not transfer in the major and may not transfer in all general education areas -- which means that students are better off starting their degree at the university as freshmen if they are academically and financially able to do so.

Staying True to Their Core

Urban community colleges would be better served if they were to revise and reform their existing services and target a different type of student. Their priority should be focused on retention efforts: designing and implementing comprehensive strategies to increase completion and graduation rates through campuswide, collaborative efforts.

Not only would that approach require less time than launching new projects but, more important, it would be cost-efficient and work strategically as well as efficiently with the resources, structures, personnel and processes the institutions already have in place. It could be achieved with interdepartmental/cross-divisional, strategically planned and collaboratively executed initiatives, such as Guided Pathways’ advising reform supported by technology. (Advising professionals, administrators and faculty who are part of the Guided Pathways reform movement have developed a variety of targeted programs to combine technology and degree planning as well as transfer planning, while linking to on-campus support services -- an approach now referred to as Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success, or iPass). It could also be accomplished through organized efforts to streamline degrees by eliminating too many free electives and paring down departments and degree offerings to four metamajors and only a few majors within each metamajor.

Rather than compete with four-year institutions, community colleges should develop close partnerships with them. They should negotiate curriculum maps as part of 2+2 seamless transfer agreements so that credit transfer is maximized to the ultimate benefit of the student.

Moreover, community colleges should focus on students from vast untapped markets who would greatly benefit from opportunities within their communities -- which in turn would support the economic and cultural growth of urban neighborhoods. For example, to offer greater support for professional, nontraditional students -- a student demographic that is actually increasing in numbers at many urban community colleges in recent years -- community colleges should consider strengthening career and technical education internships and advisory boards, prior learning assessment credits, and competency-based education credentialing. An expanded PLA credit-acceptance policy, for instance, along with veterans’ centers and distance classes for active-duty military personnel, would bring an institution closer to veterans and present community colleges as military-friendly places. For volunteer and service opportunities, community colleges should also connect with the local USO and ROTC offices.

Urban community colleges should also focus on the many students in socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods who believe that education is not applicable to them or attainable. To support first-generation college students and the economic growth of their communities, for instance, urban community colleges should consider working with Achieving the Dream. Through its membership network, students and institutional partners gain opportunities for growth and achievement that, in turn, can benefit the institution in multiple ways. Recruiters and advisers should also work with high school guidance counselors and teachers to assist in college placement. And to improve completion and graduation rates, standardized placement tests should be replaced by multiple data points for admissions and placement decisions, which would minimize the time that students spend in developmental education and English as a Second Language classes.

If urban community colleges were to focus their concerted efforts on the students for whom they are the only gateway for accessing higher education, and truly invest in their communities, their overall enrollment would significantly improve, as would their communities. Instead of competing for the same small group of highly qualified students, urban community colleges need to stay true to their core and serve their entire communities with innovative outreach and support structures on multiple levels -- interacting with community members, entrepreneurs and businesses, local nonprofit and government agencies.

Those community colleges that heed such a call would not only solve their enrollment challenges in a relatively short time frame but also serve as a focal point to the surrounding community. They would truly become community-centered institutions, dedicated to the democratic principles of equity and entrepreneurial opportunity, artistic expression and intellectual discourse.

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