Community Colleges’ Strengths More Significant Than Ever

A recent Gallup, Strada survey shows students feel supported, staff could use encouragement. This article is a preview from the forthcoming spring 2020 issue of Trustee Quarterly magazine.

In a time of profound uncertainty, community colleges have heroically rallied to provide core services for their students. But with the continued threat of COVID-19, we’re likely to face severe budgetary and logistics challenges for the foreseeable future.

When faced with an existential threat, robust institutions find solid footing by leaning into their strengths. So it’s worth highlighting the areas where community colleges excel – namely, providing emotional support for students and career-oriented learning.

A few years ago, Gallup partnered with the Strada Education Network to survey more than 2,000 Americans who completed an associate degree. The study revealed that community colleges are outperforming their four-year brethren on a few key measures. 

Community Colleges Care—And Students Know It

First, associate degree holders (30%) are more likely to strongly agree that their instructors care about them as people than graduates with bachelor’s degrees (26%). They’re also more likely to strongly agree that they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams (20% v. 18%). 

These two data points are notable because, through its annual Alumni Survey, Gallup has found that graduates who strongly agree with either of these benchmarks are more likely to be engaged in their post-college careers and to be thriving in their well-being. 

Community Colleges Prepare Students for Work

Another pillar of the community college experience is career-driven learning. Associate degree holders are more likely to strongly agree that their current work is “completely related” to their program of study (35% v. 33%) and that their education was “worth the cost” (46% v. 45%).

And associate degree holders are also more likely to express strong interest in their work (41% v. 38%) and strongly agree that they have the “ideal job” for them (29% v. 26%). These students are leaving college with a clear sense of professional direction.

Of course, these outcomes don’t happen by chance. They require the intervention of faculty and staff who care enough about their students to offer compassionate mentorship and clear career guidance. As a result, it’s vital to keep campus employees engaged in their own work. 

Community College Staff Need Encouragement, Too

Over the past few years, Gallup has surveyed tens of thousands of faculty and staff to learn what drives their engagement; that is, what enhances their psychological commitment to students and promotes their exercise of discretionary effort.

We’ve found that faculty and staff are five times more likely to be engaged at work if they strongly agree they have “opportunities to learn and grow.” And they’re four times more likely to be engaged if their supervisor “cares about them as a person.”

Questions for Boards to Consider

With this in mind, trustees should ask themselves two key questions: How are you providing learning and growth opportunities for your faculty and staff? And do campus leaders and managers express genuine empathy for all campus employees?

If your answer is in the affirmative, your students are likely reaping the rewards. But if you have room for improvement on either front, you can tackle these core areas of engagement with limited resources, regardless of external constraints. 

Providing opportunities for learning in a setting specifically designed for this very pursuit doesn’t require much of a fiscal lift. Nor does expressing care for your employees through constant, clear, and heartfelt communication. 

This type of communication is especially important during episodes of reduced state funding and campus reorganization, both of which are likely outcomes in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.

So while you’re preparing your colleges for unchartered terrain, be mindful of how you’re caring for your faculty and staff. They remain the keys to student success and the long-term sustainability of our colleges, especially during times of hardship.

John Clark is an education consultant for Gallup. He can be reached at

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