Here are three misconceptions about regional colleges that Orphan wants to change:
They’re always trying to be something they’re not. There are a lot of stories about the strivers, the regionally oriented publics that are desperate to climb the U.S. News rankings. They prioritize prestige over access and lose sight of their mission. Sure, Orphan says, that absolutely does happen. She’s not trying to gloss over the pressures. “But that’s just not the case across the board.”
In fact, she says, quantitative analyses have shown that regional colleges on the whole have become more accessible over time. They are, as a sector, becoming less selective: accepting more students, measured by both total numbers and by the percentages of applicants admitted.
They’re all on the brink of closure. It’s true, she says, that regional colleges are under-resourced — and that’s a big problem — but very few are about to shut down. And when decline becomes the dominant narrative, that’s a problem, too, Orphan says.
Financial resources, from states and the federal government, flow to places seen as vital. The perception of who is vital and who is not helps flagships, for example, and perpetuates inequities in funding that harms regional colleges. That narrative also can suppress enrollment, she says, if potential students see regional colleges not as bright spots but as challenged institutions.
They’re not prestigious. Why don’t we consider it prestigious to enroll a working-class, immigrant mother and help her succeed? Why is it more prestigious to enroll “the best and the brightest,” people who are often white and middle or upper class and who’ve tended to benefit from lots of advantages in life?
Our labels are problematic, Orphan says. Think about how people talk about regional colleges. They’re often defined by what they’re not: “lower tier” or “non-flagship.” That, she says, implies that what they’re not is what they should be.
The framing matters, she says. It reflects whether or not we truly see, and therefore treat, regional colleges as an important part of the higher ed landscape and as a vital part of society.