Tuesday, May 22, 2018

If Alumni Voted…

Most community college alumni live within fifty miles of their alma mater.  Yet as a sector, we’ve done a far weaker job of recruiting alumni support than our four-year counterparts.

A recent study echoed what we’ve long known about the geographic distribution of graduates.  Selective colleges and universities scatter their graduates to cities around the country. That makes sense, given that that’s often where they came from in the first place.  Colleges that draw more locally tend to graduate more locally. Community colleges are the most local of all, and our graduates reflect that.

Admittedly, the distinction is muddier than that; nearly half of all bachelor’s degree grads in America have significant community college credits, even if they never got the associate’s degree.  And many associate’s grads go on to get bachelor’s and beyond, so the same student will show up in the alumni lists of multiple places. But the larger point remains; community college grads tend to stay local.

Alums can be resources on a number of levels.

As the private nonprofits have shown, of course, they make excellent sources of contributions.  As government support comprises an ever-smaller portion of budgets, money from other sources comes to matter more.  It doesn’t work as a direct substitute -- you don’t typically pour gifts into the operating budget, because they’re too volatile and donors don’t give for that - but it can cover scholarships, buildings, certain programs, and other costs that free up tuition dollars to be applied directly to operations.  Some colleges go so far as to engage alums in estate planning, which is a polite way of asking to be included in wills. It has been known to work.

But money is only one side of it.  

Alums can be excellent mentors for students.  They can open doors for students, make introductions, and offer the sort of real-world soft skill training that often works best one-on-one.  They also make terrific advisors for programs in their fields of expertise.

Uniquely to our sector, though, they could also form a hell of a voting bloc.  K-12 school budgets can benefit from what economist William Fischl calls the homevoter hypothesis; given the direct link between perceived quality of a school district and the value of homes in that district, voters who might otherwise be anti-tax can sometimes be swayed to support the local school district.  (New Jersey, the world headquarters of home rule, carries this dynamic to its logical conclusion.) Community colleges don’t have quite the same effect, so it’s politically easier to stiff them.

But that doesn’t have to be true.  Turnout in local elections tends to be low.  If tens of thousands of alumni were to act as a voting bloc on behalf of their alma mater, they could have an effect.  

I don’t think that’s as fanciful as it sounds.  Even if they didn’t switch party control, say, they could exert enough pressure to get the incumbent party to pay more attention.  We know that community colleges don’t engender the same sort of partisan hostility that four-year colleges do. The first state to embrace free community college, Tennessee, did so under a Republican governor.  Now Maryland, also with a Republican governor, has endorsed the concept. It can happen.

The trick is asking.  We don’t have a history of asking.

In the early going, community colleges didn’t have large alumni bases.  But most of them started in the 1960’s and grew quickly into the 70’s -- the early grads are now in retirement, and the cohorts behind them get progressively bigger.  As an educator, I see those as successes; as a political scientist, I see those as a potential voting bloc.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen a community college anywhere do a good job of mobilizing its alumni politically?  If so, how did they do it? I’m not above copying tactics...