Group of community college students studies together outside

New Budget New You? Why Now is the Shot Community Colleges Have Been Waiting For

Thanks to Governor Newsom, community colleges and similar systems are getting a significant cash infusion in 2022-23. This is a one-time opportunity to truly embrace innovation and take your rightful place as a college built for the community you serve.

At 3fold, we have worked with many community colleges on their student recruitment efforts. While each new project comes with its own set of challenges – interdepartmental miscommunication, unclear objectives, fuzzy brand awareness – the number one obstacle we face in most cases is lack of budget. Community colleges are pros at making every cent stretch as far as it can, and we do our due diligence to make it happen, but sometimes there isn’t enough cash to make an impact and prove it.

That is, until now.

Governor Newsom’s office’s recently proposed education budget shatters previously held budget records with its $100 billion (yes, with a “b”) commitment to K-12, higher education, expanded learning opportunities, arts and music, improving literacy rates and more in 2022-23. The current proposal is based on revenue estimates through December, but there is a chance this exuberant commitment could increase by the time a revision is issued in the spring.

At first glance, it’s a fantastic thing. California is one of the largest economies in the world, and our education and workforce development infrastructure require a bold and steady investment to continue our commitment to its 39.51 million people. As folks who work with the people building and maintaining these organizations, we’ve seen firsthand how a meaningful investment can change the lives of school communities. It’s genuinely remarkable what can happen when investments are operationalized to impact and be of service to the end-user.

However, California schools haven’t seen an investment quite like this before. And if history tells us anything, it’s that with great power (or cash) comes great responsibility. K-12 and higher education systems are responsible for making up the loss of enrollment during the pandemic (a number Newsom attributes to some factors beyond administrative control, like declining birth rates), confronting the impact of poor completion rates, tackling chronic absenteeism, reaching rural and geographically isolated families and students, and improving diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. So to say that it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work would be a gross understatement.

The issue that could trump all the rest, though, is analysis paralysis – the inability to operationalize the large budget to make an impact. With so many challenges to face, it may seem daunting. How do we determine the most appropriate budget allocation? Do we go after each objective based on state or federal goals? What does our community need us to act on?

When coming face-to-face with these questions, the simplest solution is to a) freeze or b) do what you’ve always done. The problem, though, is that neither of those options will work in 2022. And neither of those options will help reach institutional goals of empowering students to lead meaningful lives and productively contribute to their communities.

If community colleges and other organizations are staring at the Goliath that is the California budget and the second Goliath that are all of their community challenges, now is the time to make real, audacious, and significant change. Here’s how to do that.

View the budget as the wind at your back

California’s higher education budget is so large it sounds fictitious – like a four-year-old was asked to come up with how much they think a house costs. Confronted with such a large number, the first thought is often, “Wow, exciting!” immediately followed by “There’s no way we can distribute this strategically.” The next thing you know, you’re funneling it directly into a program you deemed obsolete years ago because it’s comfortable, and you know what it does.

This is your opportunity to use the investment as the wind in your sails and embrace innovation. The kind of innovation that brought light bulbs, computers, and Teslas to the world. As one of the most powerful learning systems in the United States, it’s your responsibility to embrace what’s new and what’s next – growth only happens outside of our comfort zones, after all.

Consider additional funding the removal of (some) risk

More funding means more padding. Many colleges are used to making decisions by committee or consensus, two things that kill revolutionary thinking. Additional funding means you have the space to say, “we’re going to avoid diluting the solution because we’re nervous about doing things differently.” And then you do things differently.

Focus hiring on student services and get a marketing partner instead

We know this sounds like a plug. And it isn’t (entirely). The national labor shortage has not stopped short of higher education. In fact, teacher shortages have left many colleges and similar institutions in unimaginable lurches. Instead of bolstering your auxiliary in-house teams, focus your hiring efforts on highly qualified student advocates. These are the positions that students attribute their success to – the empathetic counselor whose door was always open, the charismatic outreach coordinator who changed their mind about college, and the professor who stoked their curiosity in a new field.

Student success is about building relationships, so the people who are stewarding those connections should be the most meaningful hires. Hiring an agency for your other projects, like rebranding, increasing enrollment, and program rollouts, focus your teams and remove the responsibility so you can define your student success outcomes. And not just any agency, one that’s hell-bent on your success and improving your community outcomes (like ours).

Colleges, this is your permission slip to step into 2022 with a focus on doing something new, different, and wildly meaningful for your students. Your communities deserve an exciting, inclusive, and original way to say who you undoubtedly are and what you really stand for. With 2022-23’s generous budget you can move freely between what’s worked and what’s on the horizon, and avoid the ideas that don’t achieve your goals (even if that’s how it’s always been done).

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