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3 Missed Opportunities in Academic Marketing

How can academic marketers succeed in attracting new students while still accomplishing their other initiatives? Here’s how to score some easy victories.

It’s no secret that community college marketing teams have a lot on their plates. Many of them are working with small staffs (sometimes just themselves) as well as on limited budgets. Nevertheless, they are in charge of communication for their entire institution, including internal campaigns to staff and students, fundraising campaigns for donors, and public relations campaigns in their community.

Staff, students, donors, and engaged community members often already have a stake in the community college, which means there’s significant pressure to be sure their needs are met.

Members in each of these groups often already have a stake in the community college, which means there’s significant pressure to be sure their needs are met. If the college dean, or a colleague on staff, or a valued partner in the community is asking for something to be done, that is more likely to take up a marketer’s attention than the much more difficult task of trying to gain the attention of potential students who may or may not be receptive to their message.

And yet, growing enrollment is a top concern for community colleges nationwide. Falling enrollment rates at most community colleges are the result of three overlapping factors:

  1. The generation of high school students graduating over the next decade will be smaller than the one that preceded it, leading to a smaller demographic pool of potentially interested students.
  2. Many young students fail to consider community college at all. They see themselves as heading either to a four-year institution in order to have the “college experience,” or straight into the workforce to start earning a living.
  3. Economic anxieties have made many students wary of taking on student loans, and more eager to begin work early rather than put it off to broaden their education.

Community college marketers can push back against all three of these assumptions, and they can even do so without overburdening themselves by focusing on low-hanging fruit that will yield large gains with relatively low effort. Here are the top opportunities in academic marketing that community colleges should focus on to reach new students and build enrollment.

1. Share information about financial aid early and often.

Community colleges traditionally attract students from working-class or lower-income backgrounds. Given these demographics, one might think that these students are more proactive in filling out student aid applications. And yet, the data has repeatedly shown that lower-income students are less likely to fill out FAFSA forms than middle-class areas.

This is a huge concern, because students who delay turning in their FAFSAs receive less grant funding than those who submit early. FAFSA forms are available on October 1st each year, to be filled out for the following school year. Students should fill out their forms as early as possible, but many make their decision to attend on much shorter notice.

If community colleges wait until students are walking in their doors to tell them about FAFSAs, it may already be too late for those students to reap some of the financial benefits. On the other hand, if community colleges can get the word out about student aid early, they can help lower the overall costs of attendance for students.

2. Help prospective students learn more about programs and careers.

Part of the reason students delay filling out FAFSA forms is because they don’t know what they want to do. Young children often imagine that they will grow up to have an idealized career—actress, or singer, or fireman, or doctor. As they grow older and enter high school, some of these possible career paths will become unfeasible to them.

But in their place, many students are only exposed to the most generic versions of adult jobs. They aren’t sure what these jobs actually entail, which means they don’t know if they would enjoy them. The lack of information generally renders these careers unappealing.

However, student perceptions of many careers change with exposure. The more information a student has about what a line of work can offer them in terms of wages, advancement, work/life balance, and personal fulfillment, the more attractive that program will become. This means community colleges can’t wait for students to pick a program and show up to enroll, they need to be marketing programs in order to attract students to them.

3. Market career pathways, stackable credentials, special programs, and services.

Prospective students need to know that they can afford community college, and that there are programs there that will meet their interests. However, many community colleges have much more to offer in addition to financial aid and a degree, and few students are likely to know the details on their own.

For instance, if your community college has a special learning program that lets students gain on-the-job experience, that information should be included in any marketing about that degree. If you have special accommodations for childcare, that could be the deciding factor that encourages a young parent to enroll.

In short, students need to know how community college will help them build a better life. They haven’t come for the college experience, they just need to know whether they can afford an education that will get them a good job.

Assume prospective students know less about your school than you realize, but that what they want to know is more than you’re currently sharing.

At the end of the day, many community colleges struggle with their marketing due to a simple misconception: they assume their students are as aware of their school’s offerings as they are themselves.

It’s easy to see how this happens. If you spend all day talking with current students about their financial aid, their degree paths, and their career goals, it’s no wonder you might assume that students who haven’t attended your school yet have that same level of information. You might forget that new students only hear about this information once they’ve sought it out for themselves.

Instead, community colleges need to be proactive in making the case for their educational programs more broadly in the community. Students need to get information about their community colleges programs, services, and financial aid resources so that they can decide to go to community college—not as part of the orientation packet after they’ve already enrolled.

The more proactive academic marketers can be in making the case for a community college education, the more success they will have in enrolling students. Even better, those students will be more likely to succeed in school and in life because they will be making fully informed decisions—about their education, and their careers.

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