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Dropping “Community” from the College

AUDIO | Dropping “Community” from the College
Dropping the word “community” helps colleges compete in the postsecondary marketplace while better reflecting the work being done.

The following interview is with Jill Wakefield, chancellor of the Seattle College District. In March, Seattle’s three colleges chose to drop “community” from their names starting in the fall of 2014 as part of a district-wide rebranding campaign. In this interview, Wakefield discusses the move to drop “community” and to share her thoughts on the power of branding in the higher education marketplace.

1. What was the impetus behind dropping the word “community” from the names of district colleges?

There were two things; the first was that we wanted to better reflect the quality and the level of education available at our colleges and to more accurately portray our scope, which now includes four-year programs leading to bachelor’s degrees. The second was that we really wanted to portray a more aspirational college promise for prospective students and to signal the enhanced opportunities that colleges offer today and into the future.

2. When discussing the terms “college” and “community college,” is there a difference in perspective, not only among prospective students, but also among potential corporate partners for training opportunities?

I think that there is, and I come to you as a graduate of a community college. Many of the high schools told us that when their students think about community colleges, they see limited opportunities, and in our community they go to a community college that has already dropped community from its name.

I want to emphasize that we are still a community college. Our mission is exactly the same as it has always been. We’re committed to an open door policy, we’re committed to serving the people who live in Seattle whether they need basic skills, an associate of arts degree to transfer to the University of Washington, a technical skill, or an applied baccalaureate.

3. How does dropping the word “community” and changing branding impact institutional operations?

Dropping the name really did speak to reflections we’ve had from many of our students who sometimes associate “community” with “less than” when they’re talking about our colleges, in spite of the fact that our students do as well or better than those who start in universities. You may have watched television shows and listened to the comments about community colleges and a lot of them focus on this idea that because we are open door, perhaps the quality is less.

So as part of our branding, our hope was not that we wanted to change who we are but to really reflect the full range of programs that we have, the high quality of programs, the variety of programs and the options for students to start here and go anywhere.

4. Have you seen much impact of the change thus far?

The one thing I’ve had to emphasize is that we are absolutely your community’s college. It’s been a name change, not a mission change. It has added to some very interesting conversations about our role and educating the workforce of the future. It’s started some really good conversations about the importance of education and training that’s accessible for everyone.

We are a community college and that’s where we have to emphasize. We’re not becoming an elite college, we’re not trying to be who we aren’t. In 1901 when we were founded, we were junior colleges,. Then in the 60s we became community colleges when we added workforce training, basic skills and other missions.

This is an evolution of our community college to offer the applied baccalaureate degrees which really are about adding opportunities of those students to get a two-year technical degree. In the past students with a technical degree had no options to obtain a baccalaureate degree without starting over. It really opens up opportunities for our graduates.

5. How do you expect the role of community colleges to change over the next few decades?

Higher ed is at a crossroads in general. What I want to make sure is that we’re prepared for whatever that future may be. As I look at higher ed, there are more questions about the return on investment, the value of higher education, the cost of higher education, the new models like competency-based, others that are online, and how we really see higher ed moving in the future.

I believe it’s going to be more individualized. I think it will be a variety of in-class, online and on-the-job education for the individual.

If we do our job, we will build on our foundation of being accessible. Anybody who wants to pursue higher education will start where they are and move to where they want to go. We are built on the Jeffersonian ideals that everybody should be able to pursue higher education. I don’t see that we’ll ever leave that mission. We are the way to the middle class for millions of individuals. We are the way to higher ed and universities for millions of individuals. Our foundation is strong. Where the changes may be is how we deliver it. Whether it’s online, in the classroom or in the workplace will be one of the major changes. Higher ed needs to be more accessible at all levels of a person’s career

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the evolving role of colleges and whether the moniker “community” really suits the work that colleges still do?

Community is an important word for community colleges; our foundation is serving the needs of the community. What we feel is that it’s not critical to have it as part of our name to better-serve the evolving needs of our community and our students. Our mission to serve the needs of the community will always be at the top of the list. How we brand ourselves; you’ll see change as the needs of those who live in our community change.

This interview has been edited for length.

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