College Lingo: How we define "college" impacts our community culture

Collective Impact Spotlight

Communication is all around us and has been at the core of how humans interact since the beginning of time. The words and images we choose to define college and communicate its importance matter.

I repeat. The words we choose matter.

Too often we conflate the word "college" with "university" and through this process we alienate those that are in fact college-bound. A postsecondary educational program that results in a valuable credential is precisely the definition of "college." Students that pursue education beyond high school are going to college -- whether they are pursuing an engineering degree from Michigan State University or an aviation certificate from Northwestern Michigan College.

Spokane Public Schools in Spokane County, Washington took on the task of redefining "college" by launching their T-2-4 campaign. Most recently they released a music video to help educate the community through song. It's a fun way to reinforce how Spokane defines "college" and celebrate all choices.

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Rap group Level Ground tackles the concept of T-2-4. The song elevates Spokane Public Schools' dedication to preparing students to successfully move to and through some form of higher education, whether it's technical, 2-year or 4-year.

Are you ready? Then let's get in and make it through. I'm going to a T-2-4 (Technical, two-year, 4-year or the Military)


MCAN's staff and board have engaged in a similar process. We don't have a fun music video (although the ideas are turning in our heads...) but we do have a strong vision and values statement. About two years ago our board and staff met at great length and discussed what we mean when we say "college." We were very careful and thoughtful when crafting our values statements. It's not a coincidence that the first value statement we discussed and now list defines the term "college".

  • College is postsecondary education: MCAN uses the term "college" to refer to the attainment of valuable postsecondary credentials beyond high school, including professional/technical certificates and academic degrees.
  • College is a necessity: Postsecondary education is a prerequisite to success in a knowledge-based economy. Everyone must pursue and complete a postsecondary credential or degree beyond high school.
  • College is for everyone: The postsecondary education attainment rates among low-income students and students of color are significantly lower than those of other students. MCAN is committed to closing these gaps.
  • College is a public good: Postsecondary educational opportunity and attainment are critical to a just and equitable society, strong economy, and healthy communities.

Why not just say "postsecondary education?" MCAN embraces the term "college" to elevate quality postsecondary degrees and credentials. Also postsecondary education is a clunky 22-letter phrase that doesn't easily roll off your tongue. It sounds intimidating and isn't easily embraced by the general public.

It's critical Local College Access Networks take the time to discuss how they define college, but coming to an agreement is not the ultimate goal. The LCAN leadership needs to embrace the definition and regularly utilize the language when talking about college. Be the leading voice to redefine college in your community.

In our last Spotlight we shared how West Ottawa Public Schools has seen a dramatic shift in their college-going culture. At the core of that shift is the district embracing their mission and ensuring every student, parent and staff member understands the mission and what it means when someone says "college."

How is your community defining college and making sure your definition is widely heard and understood? Share your community definition on our LinkedIn page here.

For more information on how communication impacts your college access efforts head to the MCAN website to download our guidebook, Charting the Course: A community's guide for increasing educational attainment through the lens of collective impact, and our Communication Toolkit.

Lisa King headshot 2013Author: Lisa King, public relations consultant for the Michigan College Access Network

Posted: December 17, 2014

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