The Decision to Go From “Community College” to “College”
As institutions move forward in this new era of higher education, some schools are looking to make big shifts. Recently, Oakton Community College removed the term community from its name and is reshaping its focus to better serve the modern learner. In this interview, Katherine Sawyer discusses the decision behind the name change, how it affects the institution and the impact they’re looking to have in the future.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did Oakton decide to remove the word community from its name?
Katherine Sawyer (KS): This discussion happened among the college’s board of trustees in June 2019. It was an interesting time and confluence of events—we were celebrating our 50th anniversary serving the community. At the same time, we were preparing for our next iteration of the college’s strategic plan. These milestones provided a valuable time of reflection about our relevance to our communities, the students we serve and what we envision moving forward.
College trustees elected to change the name to help us lean into the next 50 years. We aligned the transition with the launch of our new strategic plan and our 2030 vision to build just and thriving communities. Our mission as the community’s college is unchanged. We’re here to serve the community, now as Oakton College.
Evo: How do you expect this change to impact brand recognition among higher ed leaders and learners within the space?
KS: Changing the institution’s name is so much more than just updating the logo and adjusting the colors and typography that comprise our visual identity. The name change allowed us to refresh our brand. We talked to our students, alumni, community members, faculty and staff to understand how our stakeholders and constituents experience our brand today. Community members felt positively about the college, but what wasn’t clear to many was the relevance Oakton has to them personally.
We want to be certain we are conveying our relevance as an exceptional equitable and supportive learning environment, offering life-changing education to further one’s opportunities. We updated our brand personality to reflect our voice and tone in content and communication. As we launched ourselves as Oakton College, we also equipped our campus community to truly become Oakton ambassadors in our classrooms, across campus and in the community. Ensuring we’re seen as a welcoming partner and environment is key.
Evo: How do you expect this change to impact student enrollment and engagement?
KS: This is an amazing time for community colleges. We serve nearly half of all undergraduates enrolled in higher ed. For many, we’re the on-ramp to higher education because of our commitment to access and affordability. Our credentials provide our students with economic and social mobility and allow them to meet workforce needs. This was the perfect time to reintroduce ourselves as Oakton College.
We’re using this name change to reintroduce ourselves to the community, and particularly among adult learners. Many of our community members were affected by the pandemic, and many are still unemployed, underemployed or feel inspired to change their career trajectory. Oakton is here for them. We can help them reach their goals and serve as a partner to both adult and traditional-age learners reconnect meaningfully with the college throughout their lives. It’s never too late to learn.
Evo: What are some marketing and branding trends you’re spotting? Are other colleges dropping the word community?
KS: We have practiced inclusive marketing principles from the very beginning and focus on telling our students’ stories, recognizing that others will see themselves in these experiences. We strive to create content that is authentic and representative. Empowering students to use their voice is key because they are the hero of their story. This was a central part of our brand refresh. It’s centered us as marketing professionals and experts and evolved the way we market and communicate the institution, raising student, faculty and staff voices.
We strive to be authentic, to meet students where they are in the decision-making process and to help remove barriers to higher education. If you’re an adult learner, your life is busy and complicated, and it’s likely that college isn’t your first priority. We’re available to the community as an active partner in advancing opportunity.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?
KS: It’s an exciting time to be a community college and to have the chance to reintroduce ourselves at Oakton College to the community we serve. At Oakton College, we get to know our students, their strengths and their goals. We believe education is powerful and life-changing. Everyone deserves a supportive and equitable learning environment where they can thrive. Fostering that connection to people, ideas and opportunities is the best path to success.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator