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Community colleges shorten their names

Jun. 30, 2014 - 02:23PM   |  
Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan, dropped the word 'Community' from its name this year, in part, officials said, to reflect that it has some four-year degree programs.
Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan, dropped the word 'Community' from its name this year, in part, officials said, to reflect that it has some four-year degree programs. (Dwight Burdette/Wikipedia)
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Small but growing numbers of community colleges are moving to drop the word “community” from their name, inspiring a sometimes passionate parsing of its meaning.

The move comes as more states allow two-year colleges, which are popular with military veterans, to confer bachelor’s degrees, which typically take four years or longer to complete.

Alert drivers in the Seattle area will notice over the next few months that 10 highway signs for three Seattle community colleges are being replaced with signs that say Seattle Colleges. Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan, just unveiled its new, shorter-by-a-word logo and marketing campaign. Nearly all of Florida’s community colleges have changed their names; several now call themselves state colleges.

Officials at those institutions say the change reflects the evolving nature of community colleges — many of which were born as junior colleges. The schools have traditionally offered two-year and shorter-term technical degrees — and still do. But 21 states now allow them to also confer bachelor’s degrees. That’s more than double the number 10 years ago.

The phenomenon got its start in rural areas where access to four-year universities is often limited and has spread to schools that offer high-demand majors such as teaching and nursing.

Most of the more recent four-year programs similarly focus on degrees that lead to particular careers such as culinary arts and energy production. The more recent name changes also reflect a growing emphasis on college degrees by employers, along with a desire to increase enrollments and to upgrade the traditional image of community colleges as a place where students go if they can’t get admitted anywhere else.

“The changes are driven by a desire to remain more market relevant in the eyes of prospective students and employers,” says Tim Westerbeck, president of Eduvantis, a Chicago-based higher education consultant. “Often, schools change their name because of some externally-driven factor that makes their particular name a disadvantage and they want to symbolize reinvention.”

In surveys for Seattle Colleges, for example, high school principals said students “were sometimes put off by the name ‘community college’ and would come if it was called a college,” says spokeswoman Susan Kostick. The name change aims to “make it a more attractive place to students who can benefit from it and otherwise wouldn’t be going.”

Officials at Jackson College in Summit Township, Mich., which just opened a new international student institute, hope the shorter name will benefit recruitment efforts abroad. Educating international students “is a real growth potential and something we think we can do well,” says Cynthia Allen, vice president of administration.

But some educators say the receding visibility of “community” is a sign that two-year colleges are neglecting the populations they were created to serve. Funded in part by local taxpayers, community colleges grant admission to any students who want to enroll, regardless of their academic record. They typically represent the least expensive option in higher education.

“You take the word community out of their name and you wonder what happened to their mission,” says Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council of State Universities of Michigan, which lobbied unsuccessfully against the legislation enabling community colleges to confer four-year degrees.

College presidents have downplayed that concern. “This is a name change, not a mission change,” Seattle Colleges chancellor Jill Wakefield said in a March message announcing the unanimous vote by the district’s board of trustees. The decision came after a “year-long exploration of national and statewide trends,” surveys and other research.

Ty Pethe, a staff member at the recently renamed Seattle Colleges and president of a labor union representing Washington state employees, says students, faculty and staff were barely consulted in the process. The dropped word, he says, symbolizes a larger concern about faculty salaries, tuition and classroom needs.

The word community “shows inclusiveness, it shows a dedication to the area around us and the society around us,” he says. “To concentrate on changing the name without changing the actual environment seems to be disingenuous.”

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