Most high school seniors consider factors like cost, majors, and distance from home when deciding where to go to college.
Bradley Griffith, a graduating Doctor of Education student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and director of fitness at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Illinois, thinks there is another very real, but invisible factor at play that affects where seniors go to college – community college stigma.
“Community college stigma is a major issue,” Griffith said. “A lot of students believe they are too good for community college, or they could never attend there because their parents expect better or their peers will make fun of them. As community college leaders face enrollment problems, they need to realize that stigma is a real reason why they miss out on a lot of students.”
Across the country, community colleges face significant challenges including declining enrollment, decreased state support, and a declining birth rate. Gaining a deeper understanding of community college stigma would provide an opportunity for community college leaders to combat the stigma and attract more students.
“Mr. Griffith presents a study that is both theoretically and practically significant for overcoming the enrollment and financial challenges currently facing community colleges,” said Dr. T. Gregory Barrett, a professor of higher education at UA Little Rock as well as Griffith’s advisor. “As the result of the important work he has done on community college stigma, Bradley Griffith has established himself as the foremost authority on community college stigma in the world.”
In his dissertation, “Community College Stigma and its Effect on Illinois High School Senior’s College Choice,” Griffith surveyed more than 300 graduating high school seniors in Illinois from 27 participating high schools during the spring 2021 semester to investigate their perceptions on community colleges.
“The primary finding was that community college stigma does have a significant impact on college choice,” Griffith said. “Some of the main reasons why someone is considering a college are cost, distance from home, and the programs that they offer. What I found is that community college stigma can impact the college choice decision just as much as a lot of these primary factors.”
In general, Griffith found that high school seniors in Illinois have a positive perception of community colleges, but it changes when the question of their own attendance comes into play.
“Everyone thinks community college is good, just oftentimes not quite good enough for themselves or their children,” Griffith said. “These stigmatized perceptions have a very damaging effect. There are a number of high school graduates who are completely ignoring community colleges because they look down on them or think they will be belittled for attending.”
That can be a major loss for high school seniors who are missing out on all the benefits of attending a community college, including affordability, accessibility, academic flexibility, small class sizes, and being close to home.
“My experience at a community college was great, and I loved it,” Griffith said. “Community colleges give everyone an opportunity. It’s a very tight knit community where you can build strong relationships. Community college can be a second chance for a lot of people. Community college leaders should be more informed and proactive in addressing stigma in order to recruit students and improve the image of their institutions.”
Griffith found that family and peer perceptions of community college had a significant impact on student perceptions of community college. As one survey taker stated, “Community college is typically looked down on unless you’re just using it as a stepping stone to save money before transferring out to a better school. That’s what my family and friends have always thought.”
In the survey, Griffith asked high school seniors what community colleges could do that would make them more appealing to students.
“That really opened my eyes to the ways that community colleges need to be marketing themselves and what kind of services they need to provide,” Griffith said. “One of the main things students talked about is they feel that sometimes a community college doesn’t offer the full college experience. They want more activities, more clubs, more athletics, etc. It can be hard to fill that need since a lot of students are commuters and don’t stay on campus.”
To combat stigma against community colleges, Griffith recommends that community colleges should establish relationships with local students at an early age to increase familiarity. In addition, community colleges should also dedicate time and resources to creating a more engaging environment and enjoyable campus life with more clubs, athletics, events, and other recreational opportunities.
“My data showed the more familiar a student is with community college, the more likely they are to attend,” Griffith said. “I think community colleges need to make more concentrated efforts to promote themselves and get themselves out there for students at a young age. They need to offer events that get young kids on campus. They need to find a way for kids to already have a rock solid understanding of their local community college before they enter high school.”