Many years ago, when I was at DeVry but looking for another place to work, I saw an ad for the community college in the county where The Wife grew up, and where her parents still lived. I noted the address of the college, and asked her where it was relative to her parents. “County?” she asked, surprised. She remembered going there in elementary school to visit the planetarium.
I got the job, and a few months into it, asked my boss about the planetarium. CCM didn’t have a huge astronomy program, but the planetarium was smack in the middle of the major academic building, taking up prime real estate. When I asked why it was there, he explained that the planetarium drew huge numbers of elementary school students from throughout the county every year, and that every time one of those kids set foot on campus, the college built up chits with local families. The more people who set foot physically on campus over time, the stronger the college’s political support. They don’t vote with their feet, exactly, but their feet influence their vote. He saw a direct connection between hosting community events -- whether planetarium shows, musicals, art gallery openings, or anything else -- and the long-term health of the college. It needed allies.
The lesson stuck with me. Place is an asset.
Public higher education has a divided mind about place these days. On the one side, with interest rates low and competition among colleges heated, we’ve seen a significant growth in construction projects over the last decade or so. At the exact same time, though, we’ve also seen a large and growing migration of instruction online. Online instruction meets all sorts of needs, and has much to be said for it, but rooms full of servers aren’t visually appealing. In terms of drawing the public to campus, server rooms can’t compete with planetariums.
In some communities, campuses are the rare spaces in which meaningful numbers of people from different parts of town, economic classes, and the like come together on a regular basis. That function is probably most pronounced among community colleges, since they’re open to everybody and usually have clearly defined geographical identities. In areas in which classes and races are relatively segregated -- more common than I’d like to admit -- community colleges in particular often draw people from across those boundaries. That role as public meeting space is easy to ignore in day-to-day operations, where we’re concerned with room usage, class sizes, and all of the usual daily business. But over time, it matters.
My personal favorite public outreach was senior citizens’ day. Every spring at CCM we’d have an open house with one-day classes for seniors, along with lunch. I even did a couple of presentations on American politics, and had a blast; unlike younger students,the seniors had living memory of administrations from decades past, and since they weren’t being graded, they had no problem letting me know when they thought I was off-base. Attendance at seniors’ day was always several hundred. As any competent political scientist can tell you, seniors vote at higher rates than younger people do. To the extent that they harbor good will towards the local community college, that could only help. I recognized some of the same faces from year to year, and heard them refer to senior day as their event. That kind of community support is hard to itemize, but you notice if it’s missing.
Large state universities have known this for years, which is why they sponsor high-visibility athletic programs. At community colleges, the efforts at visibility have tended to be more local, which makes sense.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen particularly successful ways to bring more of the community onto campus and make a positive impression?