Rebundling Community College

Any school offers a bundle of complimentary services and attracts partners. For colleges, the anchor is teaching undergraduate students. Undergraduate tuition provides funding for graduate students and professors’ research, who teach the classes. When students live on or near campus, there’s an industry to provide housing and meals that bolster the student experiences. Specialized counseling, medical, and financial aid services aim to help students successfully finish their degree. Athletics programs provide entertainment and brand awareness. Local businesses partner with colleges for training programs, and industrial parks are established to commercialize innovations developed at the college.

The internet is eroding the core of colleges, undergraduate enrollment. The problem is technological. College’s main teaching technique – lectures – are delivered better via the internet. The effect is felt unevenly across the post-secondary sector. Community colleges are the worst hit. The most obvious reason is that online education primarily competes on price, which community colleges also do. Both offer the ability to attend college for reasonable tuition without moving to another city, but online colleges increasingly win with broader choice and more flexibility. Covid helped.

More prestigious schools are insulated because of their reputations and because students are less price sensitive. Success in college gives education and a credential. That credential is a way of borrowing somebody else’s reputation by showing off their seal of approval. Prestigious schools have their own, positive reputation. Community colleges mostly have a neutral or even negative reputation of their own, but themselves borrow reputation from accreditation bodies. That is, the value of certification by a community college is the generic degree or credential rather than the brand recognition of that specific institution. Online colleges can also award accredited diplomas, but have not built prestige of their own to threaten the prestige of name-brand schools.

What are we losing in this creative destruction? The wrap-around services and sense of community. For online schools with geographically dispersed students, relationship building is anemic, residential services are infeasible, and business partnerships are difficult. Online schools’ business partnerships are with nationwide employers like Wal-mart and Amazon rather than local small businesses.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em

Community colleges have been forced to adapt before. Since their founding in the early 1900s, they’ve been tugged in different directions by the demands of partner universities, GI benefits, worker training needs, technology changes, and public funding. Once more, their business model needs to adapt to serve a diverse swath of people and build vibrant local economies. But this trick might be the hardest yet. What can a community college offer when online education outcompetes them in providing lectures and basic accreditation?

The answer will be a combination of focusing on the strenghts of brick-and-mortar while collaborating with online colleges where beneficial. Public libraries have already been forced to adapt to the internet in the same way, leaning harder into activities that cannot be replicated online like story hours, while providing computer labs that make libraries a shared facility for using the internet. More than ever, community colleges will specialize in training programs that require a physical component like building trades and medical certifications. They should also start learning how to be the best physical location for students to complete an online degree.

Some potential tie-ups are obvious if community colleges find themselves with excess capacity in capital-heavy services like housing and academic buildings. Community colleges can partner with online colleges to give the online students access to campus facilities. Community colleges can also help online schools by proctoring exams and hosting occasional local in-person events.

Cross-enrollment between online schools and community colleges (or any two colleges) is another good idea but will require broader changes to implement. The idea is known as microcredentialing. American higher education relies on accreditation bodies to ensure that whole certification programs meet a minimum standard, but individual classes are not typically accredited. That’s why schools and employers smoothly accept degrees awarded at another institution but do more work to evaluate single courses before accepting them. Small groups of schools have long worked out cross-enrollment schemes between themselves, but larger scale acceptance would require course-level accreditation. This work is ongoing.

Puttings students first

63% of post-secondary students enroll first in a school with low barriers to entry. That’s mostly community colleges, for-profit schools, and online schools. Six years after first enrolling, less than half of them had earned any type of college credential. Over those 6 years, it’s typical for students to enroll in multiple institutions.

The statistic is tragic. But it shows the potential for benefit from reimagining community colleges. Nonselective enrollment and low costs ensure that community colleges serve a tough crowd with unsettled lives. Already, community colleges have programs focused on raising program completion rates. What more can be done?


In contrast to online colleges, most funding for community colleges is provided by the government. This trend looks set to increase based on the popularity of proposals to fund 2 years of free community college for everyone. Community college funders must also change their approach in response to competitive changes. At the K-12 level, the policy change of closely aligning public funding to student enrollment has ignited competition to attract students. If the goal is to use community colleges to put young adults in careers and to bolster local economies, post-secondary policy needs to move in a different direction. Just as libraries’ mission is to maximize reading rather than book circulation, community colleges’ mission should be to maximize credentialling in their community rather than enrollment in their school. If government funders evaluate community colleges’ net impact rather than their enrollment, college administrators will be free to focus on local students’ wellbeing rather than on beating an online competitor.

(To be clear, incentive-based funding for community colleges and any public institution is vital. I’m only saying that a better funding metric to incentivize collaboration with online schools is community-level outcomes rather than institution-level enrollment.)

If funding is tied to community-level success and does not require formal enrollment, community colleges can focus more on community organizing for student success. Stability can be provided via free study spaces, study groups, and academic advising when students drift between multiple online schools and the college’s own in-person classes. Colleges can work to arrange pipelines from online colleges to local employers, despite the students not being enrolled in their school. They can be a hub for informal arrangements like community mentoring and shared housing for online students at different colleges who might otherwise lack the means to meet IRL. In short, community colleges can put more focus than ever on student success and serve all the post-secondary students in their community, not just those who enroll in their college.

Written on August 11, 2022