Esam Sohail Mohammad writes for the Martin Center about the importance of community colleges staying true to their missions.

While community colleges are known as a low-cost path to higher education, some might be shocked to learn that their enrollments took a steeper hit than the four-year sector in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic. Usually, economic downturns help the two-year sector’s enrollments when learners are attracted by the more affordable tuition and no-frills, no-nonsense approach to the calling of higher education.

In that rather sobering observation, however, lies a lesson that could help community colleges move forward: stay true to the mission.

Once the million-dollar fancy marketing campaign for the brand new dorm or the cool robotics center runs its course, the core constituency of the community college remains: students who are seeking to save a significant chunk of money in the pursuit of their eventual baccalaureate degrees. That is the bread and butter, the raison d’etre if you will, of a vast majority of America’s community colleges.

Pretending otherwise may be useful for the pockets and careers of marketing directors, foundation CEOs, and pricey consultants setting up booths at various higher education conferences. On the other hand, chancellors and presidents already under siege for falling enrollments should be wary of buying into a narrative that more spending on buildings, fancier amenities, and niche program offerings are panaceas for reversing the decline.

It is a narrative that is often promoted by a segment of the broader management consulting industry that specializes in advising higher education entities and generates revenues in the billions from its clients. Unlike its purely corporate counterpart, this segment draws less scrutiny from the usual watchdogs.

From behemoths pretending to be nonprofits to sole proprietor gigs run out of basements in the retirement years of college administrators, the lure of making a buck (or a million) by banking on the insecurities of enrollment management deans and marketing directors is too tempting to bypass.