The College Donor Digest

Community College Giving: An Overlooked Opportunity

June 12, 2020 | Rebecca Richards

When contemplating where to give, higher education donors often overlook community colleges. However, these institutions are well worth considering, especially given the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. According to the United States Census Bureau, the Great Recession caused an uptick in enrollment for community colleges. Students were attracted to the lower cost, accessibility, and shorter time to degree completion. Today, in the face of the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, students are again exploring options beyond a traditional, four-year university. For those students who choose to enroll in a local community college, private philanthropy could greatly improve their educational experience.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University reveals that community colleges are woefully unprepared to accommodate the waves of students that are likely to enroll in the coming months. While Professor Goldrick-Rab argues that community colleges can only succeed with reliable government funding, private philanthropy could have an outsized impact on their quality and continued affordability. A gift that would be inconsequential at a traditional or relatively wealthy institution could have a profound effect at a local community college.

There are many ways for donors to make a creative and long-lasting impact. One important area is funding programs that introduce students to the liberal arts. A liberal arts education cultivates critical thinking skills, civic awareness, and the ability to communicate well. The liberal arts should not be an exclusively elite pursuit, but should be accessible to anyone willing to learn, traditional and non-traditional students alike. A strong liberal arts foundation will advantage students who seek to transfer to a four-year school and will prepare all students to be excellent job candidates in any field they pursue. Donors could fund a full, two-year Great Books program or simply a course that introduces students to the liberal arts and teaches them how to be lifelong learners once they join the workforce.

For donors who wish to support STEM fields, many community colleges would benefit from updated lab equipment and technology in order to provide their students with the same resources that four-year students often enjoy. As many community colleges focus on technical education, high-quality instruction and equipment is paramount to ensuring that their graduates are ready for successful careers. Alternatively, donors could help establish apprenticeship programs for students to learn technical skills from current professionals in addition to coursework.

Community colleges serve as a crossroads for students who need quick training in order to enter, or re-enter, the workforce and students who wish to go on to a traditional university while avoiding debt. Gifts like that of the Sturm Family Foundation to Arapahoe Community College (ACC) bolster the accessibility and flexibility of higher education, with transformative effect for students. The gift allows high school juniors to begin taking classes through ACC and seamlessly transition to universities in the Colorado State University network in order to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Through partnerships with local industries, students can also participate in work-based learning programs. ACC and its partners hope to make it easy for students to stay in the region and meet the demand for highly skilled jobs, particularly in cybersecurity.

Higher education should prepare students for a bright future. When that future is jeopardized by crippling tuition prices, students may question whether the cost of college is worth the investment. For many students, spending their first year at a community college is a fiscally responsible move. Private philanthropy could make that move educationally responsible as well.


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The Fund for Academic Renewal is a program of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization as defined by Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. All contributions to FAR are fully tax-deductible to the maximum extent provided by law.