One of the most unfortunate misperceptions in higher education is the view of community colleges as second-rate. Community college is often seen as a downmarket commodity, a place for people with no talent, who can't make it into a four-year school, and will never get good jobs. Anyone paying attention knows this idea is false. But it doesn't stop the persistence of stereotypes like the one on the satire website UrbanDictionary.com, where the top-rated definition of community college is "A place where you prolong your eventual dropping out of college." Ouch.
It is this perception, I believe, that has helped drive away many tech companies from the community college marketplace. The tech industry is highly image-conscious, and companies want to (rightly) be seen as industry leaders. The problem is that community colleges are hardly seen as institutions on the cutting edge of their field, especially when they are in the same pool as prestigious schools like Columbia, Stanford, or Penn. Most start-ups doing business in higher ed have also focused on getting into the 4-year college space, mostly because they understand it better. Consequently, community colleges have been neglected as a viable or sexy marketplace.
But the last thing tech companies should be doing is running away from community colleges. In fact, they should be uniting with them in forming deep, mission-driven partnerships, in ways that go beyond the traditional vendor-client relationship. Here's why.
First, both schools and tech companies have a certain sense of mission that unites them. The great goal of many community colleges is helping their students (many of whom are from underserved backgrounds) get good jobs. They are dedicated to the idea of upward mobility. Likewise, most education technology companies aren't in the game only to make money. Nearly all young ed-tech companies are driven by a philanthropic impulse to see students achieve the stars. The more that both parties can collaborate on ideas to reach their goals, the more that the overall student population is served by the ideas that come from that partnership.
Secondly, much research has been published about how millennials are the true entrepreneur generation. Last year, 67% of them said that their career goal is to one day own their own business, according to a study done by Bentley University. The community college population today is about 12-13 million people, most of them millennials. When young tech companies expand their footprint on campus, students can gain a greater degree of exposure to what it means to start and run a company. And of course, companies have an incentive to offer the best services possible, since they know that their business, being more visible, will undergo greater degrees of scrutiny.
Tech companies can benefit from closer cooperation by getting a more comprehensive, detailed, and grassroots view of the community college ecosystem from the students themselves. Few insights in business are as valuable as having a detailed knowledge of the marketplace you are trying to serve, and getting student-generated insights into what works and what doesn't is an enormously valuable piece of business intelligence.
On the back end, tech companies also benefit by getting a closer, first-hand look at the kind of talent they are helping to produce, and could potentially hire students from each school for programming, finance, or marketing positions. For example, how about in-school software development apprenticeships in which students get to hone their skills for a potential employer?
With partnerships like these, there's no limit to where things could go. The Lorain Community College Foundation in Ohio has even started a venture capital fund to help incubate tech companies in northeast Ohio. Recipients in the fund are required to provide an entrepreneurial educational opportunity or internship for students, faculty or staff at Lorain County Community College or one of our partnering higher education institutions. Linking students to the companies in the fund is valuable enough, and there are hopefully opportunities for some students to see how the VC funding process works. Most tech entrepreneurs would kill for that kind of first-hand knowledge!
In short, the time is ripe for community colleges to start partnering up with young tech companies. I'm proud that our company is leading the industry in forging a new kind of relationship.
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