Community Colleges: Enrollment Opportunity Is Knocking

Insights and ideas from educational marketing and recruitment expert Maria Kadison to grow enrollment

Community colleges are kicking off 2017 in a bit of a pickle.  With rising tuition and student debt forcing liberal arts institutions to defend their relevancy, community colleges have risen in stature.  Yet enrollment has moved in the opposite direction.

Awareness and recognition of the important role community colleges play in offering “ladders of opportunity” has, in fact, never been higher.  Today, Americans are just as likely to rate the quality of education at community colleges as “excellent” or “good” as they are to rate four-year colleges positively (Gallup).

But overall enrollment in community colleges has been on the decline since 2011 according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Student Clearinghouse.  Meanwhile, enrollment in public, four-year institutions grew. What’s going on?

We sat down with Maria Kadison, EdwardsCo’s president and CEO, to get her perspective on weak enrollment at community colleges.  Institutional leaders regularly seek Maria’s expertise in enrollment marketing to determine the best path to growth.

Here’s what she had to say…

Why do you think so many community colleges are struggling with enrollment?

Maria: During the recession, the allure of community colleges was stronger because of the lack of jobs. College advertising messages that focused on affordability, flexibility, and convenience were effective enough, given economic conditions which gave a boost to demand.

What’s more, the population of prospective students grew during this time too, adding a demographic boost to demand simply because a greater number of people were un- or under-employed.

Now that the economy has improved in many parts of the country and more people are working, the short-term urgency to get new credentials or work towards a degree isn’t quite the same.

Prospective students with real, short-term financial needs can’t justify the opportunity cost of going to school. Some of the decision is driven by financial reality, but other prospective students simply aren’t inspired enough by community college communications to make it worth their while.

Community colleges share some of the blame for this lack of inspiration. Absent the economic or demographic impact on enrollment, colleges are left to their own devices.

But with the same overused advertising slogans like “Your Future Starts Here” or “Your Success Is Our Business,” which students tune out, community colleges have made themselves nearly invisible.

In addition, so many community colleges use low price and convenience as their key selling points. “Affordable. Accessible. Diverse.” or “Focused. Flexible. Affordable. Get on the fast track to success!” or “Fit college into your life!”

Market research will tell you all of these characteristics are important. And that’s absolutely true. But who at this point doesn’t know that community colleges are relatively inexpensive and convenient especially compared to four-year institutions?

Prospective students are not hearing anything new, fresh, or interesting. Again, they automatically tune it out. These messages don’t speak to the quality of the education or the valuable experience, and they don’t speak to how a community college supports a student’s success.

This is worrisome because bad marketing is actually a huge disservice to both the community and the college.

With so much of the college’s money literally wasted on advertising the wrong messages, it’s also true that promising students are not seeing community college as an attractive route to self-improvement. Bad marketing is a lose-lose situation.

Is there anything community colleges can do right away to buck the trend of declining enrollment?

Maria: There are three things community colleges can do starting today—right now—to increase the effectiveness of their recruitment communications.

In our work at EdwardsCo, we’ve observed that higher ed, in general, seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp when it comes to the tactics used to recruit students.

Direct mail and print brochures have been the mainstays of enrollment communications for decades, yet most students—regardless of age—live on their phones. Even email is ineffective for traditional-age prospects. They simply don’t use it unless they are already in school and it’s a required form of communication.

Before spending a dime on print or email, community colleges first need to make the most of phone-based communications—text, social, and web.

Another immediate tactical action goes even further outside the mailbox. What do your prospective students listen to? Where do they go when they are online? Where do they work or hang out? How do they get there?

Community colleges need to reach prospective students where they are—you have to fish where the fish are! We worked with Schoolcraft College, for example, to develop advertising for billboards, table tops at mall food courts, and cinemas to get in front of prospects.

Finally, social media isn’t just for official posts from the institution anymore. Students don’t care about sanitized press releases and photos. Social media done right should be a big part of the recruiting mix because it can help prospective students begin to envision themselves there.

You have to do geo-targeted social media advertising through popular hangouts like Snapchat and Instagram. Colleges also have to disseminate engaging videos created by current students for prospective students. 

Prospective students want to get a real and authentic sense of what going to your school will be like—let current students have a voice on important social media channels.

We’re working with one community college now to create 360-degree videos, including emergency room training from the nursing school, a loud and crazy training kitchen in the culinary program, and cadet drills at the public safety complex. These 360 videos can be more fun than video games!

If you had the ear of every community college president right now, what would you tell this group their #1 priority for 2017 should be if they want to grow enrollment?

Maria: Fish where the fish are and use the right lures!

Hold your recruiting and communications staff accountable for spending your money wisely. They need to reach students through the channels students use and share the type of information students are interested in.

If community colleges are uniquely positioned to train America’s under-skilled and under-employed workforce and can do so affordably and conveniently, then why isn’t enrollment sky-rocketing?

Each institution should be experiencing double-digit growth year after year, and yet enrollment across the board is stagnant or even shrinking.

If you want to ride the wave of higher awareness and positive perceptions of community colleges, your top priority must be developing a brand strategy that will set your school apart in the hearts and minds of prospective students.

You need to ground this strategy in market knowledge. Ask current students what motivated them to consider a community college? What are their perceptions of your school and competitors? Why did they choose your school? Balance what students tell you about their motivations with what you can feasibly and distinctly deliver.

Opportunity is knocking in 2017, but only if you listen!

SPECIAL INVITATION

As part of our commitment to helping institutions grow enrollment, retention, and fundraising, we’re offering community colleges an exclusive and no cost 75-minute strategy meeting with Maria Kadison to discuss enrollment issues and communications questions.

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Posted on January 24, 2017 in Brand Strategy, Creative Execution, Higher Education, Ideas and insights, Recruiting

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