Community College Blog

Heads Up America: Relying on celebrity comedians and flawed data to promote community colleges?

Melinda Salaman

Melinda Salaman, Associate Director
Student Success Collaborative-Navigate

The Obama administration’s final chapter has been exciting for higher education policy wonks, particularly those of us focused on the two-year sector. In just the past few weeks, the White House launched the “Heads Up America” campaign to garner support for the national free community college proposal and released a new College Scorecard. These are two enormous projects that have raised public awareness of two-year colleges, but unfortunately not in the ideal manner.

“Heads Up America” could work if done correctly. But currently, its message promoting the value of community colleges and encouraging support for the President’s College Promise proposal is undercut by two factors: reliance on celebrities with limited community college experience to promote the value of higher education and a flawed national data set that presents two-year colleges as failing institutions.

Do as I say, not as I do?

The purpose of Heads Up America is to create greater awareness of the value of community colleges and foster support for President Obama’s College Promise proposal for free community college nationally. At its core, it’s an initiative structured around grassroots activism (complete with a toolkit of strategies to promote the campaign on social media) and celebrity YouTube cameos. The guest star list (outside of President Obama, of course) is impressive—Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Kal Penn encourage viewers to join the movement by pledging their support for College Promise and spreading the message to their networks.

However, the message is muddled by the fact that the two most famous celebrities in the video, C.K. and Rock, have never graduated from a community college themselves.

Leveraging celebrity fame or financing to promote a worthy message can be a very successful way of spreading the word. But when that celebrity cannot speak from a place of experience with the subject of your message, you risk losing your audience before you even have them. Why attend and earn a credential from a community college if the most recognizable and successful people in this video never did?

There’s an argument to be made for why C.K. and Rock are the right celebrity champions for the College Promise proposal—they have national (and international) appeal, they are supporters of education in their public-private lives off the stage, and they can bring comedic relief and reflection to an issue that excites industry insiders but may seem dull and overly complicated to everyone else. But the arguments in favor of these celebrity spokespeople don’t outweigh the fact that when tying the value of community college to strong employment outcomes, tasking two famous and enormously wealthy comedians who lack community college credentials to deliver the message can be a distraction.

There are many alternatives, the most obvious of which is featuring celebrities with community college experience and credentials, who can speak to the value of these experiences for their later professional success. Non-celebrity spokespeople may also serve as approachable, attainable role models for prospective students and the American public as a whole. Consider profiling some of the greatest assets of community colleges: college staff, local employers, and of course, students. One of my favorite practices from our white paper Excellence in Community College Marketing profiles a marketing campaign from the Alamo Colleges (TX), which profiles the real-world expertise of faculty at the institution in a series of online and television spots. Our research team will be expanding on this work over the next year.

Data distraction

The College Scorecard was released to the public a few weeks ago and has already garnered unfavorable reviews from community college experts. The most obvious gripe is one of the three major data points featured for each institution: graduation rate. This completion metric only considers first-time, full-time students who earn a credential within four years of entry—excluding all of the “non-traditional” students who attend community colleges part-time, re-enter after previous attempts, or transfer to a partner university. This exclusion makes the reported graduation rates artificially low by narrowing the definition of ”success” to one misaligned with the mission and service population of community colleges.

This is problematic for community colleges as a whole (expanding the IPEDs definition of “completion” has been a rallying cry in the sector for years), and will be for the Heads Up America campaign soon as well. To convince the American people that community colleges are worth supporting, particularly in the context of the College Promise proposal, we need better, more accurate data that shows a true measure of college outcomes. Admittedly, there is room for community colleges to improve, but a productive conversation starts with the right information at hand.

So you want to build support for free community colleges nationwide?

Obama’s College Promise proposal is ambitious in many regards, and has the potential to radically change higher education expectations and outcomes in this country. To make the proposal a reality, rallying Americans behind their local community colleges is a great first step. But messaging about the value of these institutions and their long history of success stories should be clear.

My advice for the Heads Up team (whose roster of members includes some impressive names in higher education) is to shift time and attention away from securing celebrities from the entertainment world. Instead, continue advocating to expand the definition of ”completion” in the national education data set and give community colleges the credit they deserve for their contributions to local economies and the American workforce overall.

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