Everywhere Shannon Hill turns, she sees green and black. That’s not just because those are her school’s colors. As the executive director of institutional advancement at the Cuesta College Foundation, Hill is consistently focused on keeping Cuesta—located in San Luis Obispo, California—in the black, financially speaking. Like anyone working in advancement at the community college level, she wants the foundation to secure enough “green” to support students of many ages, backgrounds, and interests.
“I joke that we roll out the green carpet, because our school colors are green and black,” Hill says about Cuesta’s support for students. “We have to roll out the green carpet and get rid of all these speed bumps.”
Hill and her advancement counterparts at schools around the country can speak at length about the numerous speed bumps—many of them financial ones—that prevent students from enrolling, or remaining, in college.
But those working in community college advancement are well aware that student struggles go beyond money. According to a study by education and social policy research organization MDRC, some prospective students neglect to enroll in courses due to a dearth of personal engagement from community colleges. Many others fail to complete their coursework due to a deficit of sustained student-college contact.
As community college advancement professionals attempt to build better connections to students while removing obstacles in their paths, they encounter innumerable challenges—many of which are beyond their immediate control.
State education funding has been cut or remains stagnant, forcing colleges to do more with less. A low unemployment rate means that older students who might have been drawn to colleges to improve their career skills are taking available jobs instead. Plus, demographic forecasts have predicted a nationwide plateau, followed by a drop, in the number of high school graduates in the next decade.
No one thinks there’s a silver bullet that will solve all funding, enrollment, and community-building challenges. Yet those who work in community college advancement—who assert that their schools are more agile and responsive to local needs than four-year institutions—have found plenty of ammunition to address these issues.
From shepherding events that honor alumni to organizing fundraising campaigns at a level that might have been unthinkable a decade ago, these advancement professionals are helping to drive the present and future success of their schools.
The New Funding Model
Economists may have declared the end of the Great Recession in the summer of 2009, but most of America’s public community colleges have continued to feel the financial aftershocks. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, as of fiscal year 2018, 41 states have yet to return to pre-recession funding levels for higher education. The budgetary constraints hurt all public postsecondary schools, but community colleges most of all.
“There’s a huge disparity in terms of open-access institutions gaining the type of leverage necessary to increase their share of the pie when it comes to public funding, and a lot of times they’re competing with [universities] at the public table,” says Magda Rolfes, practice manager for strategic research at EAB, a research, technology, and consulting firm that specializes in education. “That pie shrinks, and community colleges are at the bottom of the totem pole already, and it all rolls downhill.”
Lana Fontenot knows what it feels like at the bottom of the hill. As the associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette, she’s watched the state lawmakers slash the education budget repeatedly—more than 16 cuts in nine years. Fontenot, who also serves as the executive director of SLCC’s foundation, has seen Louisiana’s community college funding flip from 70% state money and 30% tuition to the other way around. Yet she remains undaunted by “the new paradigm.”
“You have to be very careful with increasing tuition, because, with a community college, you can easily price yourself out of your own market,” Fontenot says. “We’ve achieved immense growth in a short amount of time by realizing, almost by necessity, that we can no longer rely on state funding.”
Since Fontenot began her work with SLCC in 2014, the foundation has quadrupled its assets and increased its endowment seven times over. Those gains are the result of the college’s increased outreach to local businesses, who had been succeeding with the institution’s graduates without necessarily feeling the responsibility to give financial support to SLCC.
It’s a situation that can be improved with better communication, according to Fontenot, with businesses learning about funding that SLCC requires to educate future workers. “So if they want to continue receiving that quality pipeline that they’ve always received,” she says, “it’s now going to take a little more skin in the game.”
When it comes to that game, Fontenot takes an extended view, seeing these partnerships as long-term relationships that can be mutually beneficial. She invites business leaders to tour SLCC’s campus, speak to students, and understand what is happening in the classrooms. As the face of the college for those leaders, she listens to their companies’ hiring and training needs. Fontenot has found that naming rights for SLCC facilities can be an attractive and immediate fundraising opportunity. She advocates for turning one-time gifts into scholarships and endowments to achieve financial sustainability.
While universities have been raising private funds for decades or longer, most community colleges are relatively new to creating foundations. For example, the SLCC Foundation was established in 2003. Conversely, Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, boasts a foundation that’s been around since the college started in 1967, an endowment nearing US$60 million, and the oldest alumni association among two-year colleges.
As such, the foundation is able to raise money from local businesses and former graduates for substantial fundraising campaigns, such as the four-year Transforming Lives campaign, which is on track to reach its $19 million target when the operation ends later this year. The funds will support a building project, scholarships, and experiential learning, although the vast majority of the money will go to the Northampton Promise program.
Northampton created the program “to support students who, we say, ‘fall in the gap,’” says Catherine DeHart, the college’s director of principal gifts. “Students that need only, literally, two or three hundred dollars to finish their tuition bill are turning away because they don’t have it. They’re already working to capacity, they may be taking care of a family member or have children, and they just can’t do it. So this scholarship will be specifically for those students who are Pell [grant] eligible that just need a little help over the hump to afford tuition.”
While some look at Northampton’s sizable campaign with disbelief, others see it as proof that community colleges can build alumni associations that become financially beneficial over time. But DeHart emphasized that the college’s relationship with donors—whether they are alumni, generous folks in the community, or local business leaders—must be multifaceted.
“There’s so many different ways we can leverage one relationship, whether it’s an individual or a corporation,” DeHart says. “If you can take that relationship full circle so that they’re hiring, we’re training, they’re recruiting, it’s just going to be such a great thing for everyone. It comes back to what our president has always said: We are a college for the community and by the community.”
From Application to Completion
Applying to four-year universities can be a competitive sport, but it’s a different situation for students enrolling in public community colleges. “I mean, you apply, you’re in,” Cuesta College’s Hill says. “We don’t have those issues.”
But community colleges contend with other issues. An EAB study suggests that 56% of potential community college students leave the onboarding process after applying to schools but before they take any classes. An additional 23% drop out after they are enrolled. Success rates also look dismal. The National Student Clearinghouse found that just 39% of community college enrollees complete a credential or degree within six years.
Davis Jenkins gets frustrated when he hears from community college students who weren’t given the proper support or communication to graduate or transfer to a four-year university. As the senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, Jenkins is a strong advocate for Guided Pathways—an overhaul of the community college model that includes increased advising and clear course plans that lead to living-wage employment or university transfer with junior standing.
“If you have students on a plan, and that plan includes a bachelor’s degree or an applied associate’s with a good job at the other end, you suddenly become very marketable to parents and to students,” Jenkins says.
Yet he acknowledges that the kind of reinvention that CCRC prescribes is not a quick fix. It can be overwhelming for community colleges, which are looking at soft enrollment numbers with a shrinking pool of future students. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, projections show that the number of U.S. high school graduates will be roughly flat until 2025, followed by a steep decline of nearly 300,000 students in six years.
An EAB study suggests that 56% of potential community college students leave the onboarding process after applying to schools but before they take any classes.
In order to enroll more students, community colleges “need to bring them a different value proposition that speaks more to [this] generation, but also speaks to their parents,” Rolfes says. “Community colleges need to go to market with their four-year partner and go to these high school students and market off their pathway.”
That’s the message Cuesta College is attempting to bring to potential students. As a public college in California—a state that has bought into the Pathways model—Cuesta can highlight its articulation agreements with the University of California and California State University systems, which Hill says offer Cuesta students a track to complete a bachelor’s degree in approximately 40 different subject areas.
“Some people used to think of [community college] like 13th grade and then you drop out,” Hill says. “But now people understand, ‘OK, if I do two years here, I take these classes, I get the associate’s degree for transfer, and I can go to these [universities] and succeed in these programs.’ So I think that type of clarity is attracting more students, and more of them are being successful.”
In addition to providing students with clarity, the college offers the Cuesta Promise program, which allows current graduates of San Luis Obispo County high schools the opportunity to attend for free on a last-dollar scholarship (a fund supported by local donors that covers tuition after federal funds for each student are exhausted). Cuesta introduced the one-year program in 2016 and, according to Hill, it has assisted in raising the college’s high school graduate capture rate from 26% to 39%. But, Hill says, the school wasn’t retaining Promise students like it had hoped. Thanks to an influx of California state funding, the Cuesta Promise became a two-year program in the fall of 2018.
Cuesta’s struggle to retain students from one year to the next is a challenge that nearly all community colleges face. National Student Clearinghouse found that of all U.S. students who enrolled in a community college in fall 2016, less than half were still enrolled at the same school by fall 2017. The statistics improve somewhat when the data include students who persisted in their education by transferring or switching to a new institution (62.2%).
National Student Clearinghouse found that of all U.S. students who enrolled in a community college in fall 2016, less than half were still enrolled at the same school by fall 2017.
So what can community colleges, many of which do not have the private and state financial support of a school such as Cuesta, do to drive retention numbers?
Aware of the free college movement, Marion Technical College in Marion, Ohio, decided in 2018 to try a twist on the idea. Instead of providing private financial support for students in their first year of college, Marion Tech’s Get to Next program gives selected students the chance to have their second year of classes paid for, provided that they complete the first year in good academic standing. Essentially, it’s a “buy one, get one free” program.
“We ran it past some of the local businesspeople who give out high school scholarships,” says Amy M. Adams, Marion Tech’s vice president for planning and advancement. “And we’re like, ‘Have you guys ever thought about the fact that you’re giving out $1,000 to this person and yet you have no idea what the return’s going to be? If you were making a true business investment, would you do that without knowing what the ROI is?’ And they’re like, ‘No, we wouldn’t.’”
Get to Next, which involves last-dollar scholarships like the Cuesta Promise does, started small last year, with seven students admitted to the program. But Adams says the results are encouraging, with five of those students continuing to their free second year. Although it’s a small sample size, five out of seven (about 70%) beats Marion Tech’s overall fall-to-fall retention rate of 54%. The school looked at more applicants for the 2019 edition, and Adams hopes the program can continue to expand.
“We want to help our students get to next, whatever that is,” Adams says, “whether it’s a degree, a certificate, transferring on to a four-year institution, getting that promotion at the job, or getting a new job.”
Putting the Community Into College
When students, and their parents, picture the “college experience,” the image is usually of a four-year university with on-campus housing and a community of young students taking their first steps into society as independent adults. But the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that only 15% of U.S. undergraduate students are between the ages of 17 and 21 and living on campus at a four-year institution.
This means, for a much larger group of students, the “college experience” is the community college experience, with its mix of full- and part-time students of a wider variety of ages and an emphasis on commuter culture. But just because community colleges don’t boast the kind of campus life and alumni passion that universities do doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to build increased affinity for their schools, among both current and former students.
“We are seeing more colleges that are trying to develop some kind of community, and they’re trying to make sure that each student feels like an individual who has unique needs and unique goals,” says Christina Hubbard, director of strategic research at EAB. “Whether it’s through virtual communities, whether it’s developing learning communities, whether it’s through weekend college programs where students are seeing the same students over and over, I think those are the sort of long-term practices that eventually may drive alumni to want to give back.”
Marion Technical College is located in a state with a couple of famous halls of fame—for professional football and rock ‘n’ roll—so the Ohio school decided to launch its own. Three years ago, the institution started the Marion Technical College Alumni Hall of Fame. Every fall since 2016, the college has honored five distinguished alumni who are nominated by the community and celebrated at a November event.
“It’s just been a great way to connect with our alumni. That was one of the goals,” Adams says. “We had not had the resources to really connect with our alumni, so this has been a great way to start that communication and get them connected back to campus.”
But community building goes beyond bringing alumni back to campus. Community colleges also seek ways to keep students on campus. After the folks at Cuesta College found through a student survey that many students spent time between classes in their cars, the college invested in learning spaces with comfortable seating, strong Wi-Fi, and plenty of electrical outlets. Four years ago, South Louisiana Community College created an office of student engagement and has introduced club sports teams and student groups. Every fall, Northampton Community College hosts Quad Fest, which delivers both a carnival-like atmosphere and the opportunity for students to get involved with one of the college’s 100 student clubs. Marion Tech is bringing esports to its campus this year by hiring a coach and creating three teams to compete in video games such as Overwatch.
“That’s another way to connect to our students,” Adams says. “Hopefully, that will help with recruiting, but also retention, because they’re attached in another way to campus.”
If the major challenges facing all community colleges are intimidating, advancement professionals at these institutions take some solace in how solutions may have myriad positive effects. Alumni associations can produce role models as well as donation potential. Fundraising campaigns can bring in money and also establish closer connections between students and local businesses. Pathways programs can attract new students, retain existing ones, and bolster completion rates so that, one day, those students can become examples for a new generation of learners.
“Community colleges are generally brand new to this concept of foundations and fundraising and advancement. Harvard has a 300-year head start,” Cuesta’s Hill says. “Nationally, as a system, we are just starting to tap our potential in this area.”
Advice from Advancement Pros
Although some community colleges have long-running foundations, most are relatively new to the type of fundraising, marketing, and alumni relations that is well-established at four-year universities. For community colleges that are beginning to plow these fields, four experienced advancement professionals offer this advice:
Amy M. Adams, vice president of planning and advancement, Marion Technical College:
“Don’t be afraid to get out there and into the community. I literally hear in the community, ‘We never used to see Marion Tech out and now we do.’ Don’t be afraid to try new things. Some things will work, some won’t, and that’s all right.”
Catherine DeHart, director, principal gifts, Northampton Community College:
"Start engaging your community. Start inviting them to campus. A lot of people say, ‘Oh yeah, we have that community college down the street.’ But they really don’t know what you’re doing until you bring them in front of it. Be proud of what you do and show it off.”
Shannon Hill, executive director of institutional advancement and the Cuesta College Foundation, Cuesta College:
"Find the one thing that you can get started on that can be smaller. It could be supporting one program in a department, and then other departments internally will see how you successfully helped that one department. And then the donors to that area will see how successfully you’ve created that. You have to do it bite-sized, just like anything else in life.”
Lana Fontenot, associate vice chancellor for institutional advancement and executive director, SLCC Foundation, South Louisiana Community College:
"Without a doubt, phone a friend. We share best practices. Try creating your own network, whether that’s with CASE or reaching out to a community or technical college that’s in another region. More often than not, advancement professionals are very willing to help each other out and share the knowledge.”
Art Credit: StudioCasper, Kellyreekolibry, Kentracajuan, Kumer, -1001/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Serkang/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is a content creator at CASE
Article appears in:
Breaking Barriers: How advancement professionals are meeting the challenges that face community colleges. Also, a shared identity of connecting alumni through affinity groups, and how alumni advocates are rallying alumni online, at the statehouse, and beyond.