The Campaign to End Community College Stigma: Why Call It A Stigma?Steve Robinson | President, Owens Community College
Advocates of America’s community colleges have been actively managing public perception since our institutions were founded. Prior to the 1947 Truman Commission report “Higher Education for American Democracy,” junior colleges struggled with perceptions of lack of rigor and low prestige. As community colleges proliferated during the civil rights era of the 1960s, disparaging nicknames such as “high school with ash trays” or “13th grade” permeated public discourse about two-year and technical colleges. Most of these perceptions were born of garden variety snobbishness and class bias. Over time these perceptions have become diluted, but the negative associations remain, particularly among prospective postsecondary students and their families.
Like the musical genre of jazz, the comprehensive community college is a uniquely American invention. The vision to create a national network of open admissions two-year colleges was as groundbreaking in scope as the 1862 Morrill Act which established land grant universities. And while negative associations to the agricultural origins of land grant universities persisted for a time (“Moo U” and “Cow College” to name a couple), these institutions have shed their negative public perception at a quicker rate than community colleges. In the early 21st century, land grant institutions are recognized among elite universities and boast a large portion of R1 and top-ranked programs in the country. Yet the stigma against community and technical colleges persists, despite significant workforce shortages in well-paying careers that require certificates and associate degrees, as well as the crushing financial burden of student loan debt that can be greatly reduced by strategic community college transfer to four-year programs.
But why call the negative image of community colleges a stigma? This evocative term conjures up biblical and classical images of disease and disfigurement. It is associated with the cultural exclusion of caste hierarchy and social stigma. The term has been effectively deployed to counter important cultural issues in public health such as the inability to discuss “taboo” subjects like mental health, suicide, and opioid addiction. Using the term “stigma” to describe cultural bias against community colleges has proven to propel the discourse on perception of these important institutions because stigma—to use a marketing term—is sticky.
Stigma Is a “Sticky” Idea
In his landmark book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath outlines six principles of marketing “stickiness.” According to Heath, sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and make a good story. Just the use of the term “stigma” is sticky. Its unexpected and emotional connotations frame the issue of public perception in a far more dramatic light than simple brand identity. This concept of stickiness is woven into our #EndCCStigma social media campaign to address unfair negative perception of community colleges.
The three-part theory of the #EndCCStigma campaign embraces these sticky principles. First, it calls out the negative perceptions of community colleges by using the dramatic word stigma, a simple and emotional term deployed in an unexpected manner for impact. Second, it boldly states that the stigma is not founded in reality, a tenant that requires credible stories and data that establish community college impact and success. Third, our theory proposes that the only way to change perceptions about community colleges is to call out the negative associations directly as a stigma; a simple “re-branding” or charm offensive will not work. All of this makes for an attention-grabbing story that seems to stick in ways that other promotional community college image campaigns have not.
In the context of social media, stigma is also valuable in its economy of motion. The ratio of impact per character is astounding: an attention-grabbing term that is only six characters long fits much better into a hashtag than clunky phrases such as “negative perception” or “inaccurate association.” The hashtag #EndCCStigma is blunt. It is also a call to action. Using a term such as stigma is impactful because it’s not a call to create a positive image, but rather a call to end a negative image. This distinction is important. A call to create a positive image is justifiably seen as simple branding. A campaign to end a negative perception is a matter of fairness. It is a campaign waged against something: the unfair negative associations and assumptions about community and technical colleges.
The Data on Community College Stigma
One final reason to use the term is that the most poignant and direct data point on public perception of community colleges uses this term. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) regularly surveys its members on perceived stigma toward community colleges. In their most recent research brief on community college transfer, NACAC notes exceedingly high levels of stigma among parents/families and students when it comes to community colleges. As they note in the brief:
At secondary schools, counselors perceived that parents/families and students were the most likely to carry a stigma related to community colleges and transfer. College admission office respondents reported that faculty were most likely to stigmatize transfer from community colleges (6).
The survey data is simultaneously shocking and fascinating. This particular survey was deployed in June of 2018 to school counselors, college placement advisors, and college advisors at more than 16,000 secondary schools. As reported by these respondents, more than a quarter of parents and families hold “very stigmatized” views of community college transfers. Combined with “moderate stigma,” the level of community college stigma among parents/families and students is well over half. Level of perceived stigma among college administration, conversely, was dramatically lower. More than three quarters of administration were rated as holding “no stigma” toward community college transfers. The level of “no stigma” was even higher for staff in the college admissions office: nearly 92 percent of college admissions office staff held no stigma toward community college transfers. One inference from these data is that the more first-hand experience and knowledge a group has about community colleges and two-year to four-year transfer pathways, the lower the level of perceived stigma.
The NACAC survey is an important barometer for public perception of community colleges, especially among key stakeholder groups such as parents, families, and students. Not only is the term “stigma” an effective and sticky tool in capturing the attention and imagination on social media, it’s an effective way to aggregate positive stories about community college in regional and national media stories. It’s also the term used in the most comprehensive data point available on the topic. Using this evocative term is the most effective way to end the unfair stigma placed on community colleges.