Covid-19 has transformed higher education, perhaps forever. How can community colleges make their case when the time comes to reopen?
Many colleges are looking to the fall as a time when education may be able to return to normal. However, with that expectation comes the acknowledgement that this “normal” will look very different from the “normal” of 2019.
The educational landscape has shifted in many ways in the past year, and community colleges will face challenges in bringing students back to educational paths that were disrupted because of the pandemic.
A few of the major ways education has changed include:
- Online education is part of the new normal.
- Prospective students are under economic stress.
- More students are looking for certification programs rather than full time degrees.
- Gen Z represents an enrollment cliff.
Despite the difficulties, this new normal also offers some opportunities. Community colleges must be proactive in communicating with prospective students and their communities about how they are responding to these situations, and about why they remain the best option for many college-bound students.
Here are five strategies community colleges should follow if they are to win students back to increase enrollment this fall.
1. Improve the narrative about online education.
Online education has dominated the headlines this past year, and not in a good way. Many of the stories we’ve heard come from parents who are exhausted from trying to keep their young children in front of a screen, and from teachers who are struggling to manage unruly Zoom sessions.
All this obscures some truly good news about online learning. For instance, both professors and students are warming more to online education following the abrupt shift this past year. While this progress remains modest, it is still notable given the chaotic nature of the transfer.
Online education shouldn’t be judged by the failings of a hasty roll-out, especially when its continued growth seems inevitable. Instead, community colleges should market their online programs more effectively. This includes being honest about the time commitments involved (online learning is not “easier” than in-person learning), while also promoting its benefits (flexibility for learners with tight schedules, no commute, immediate feedback on quizzes, etc.).
2. Take advantage of new recruitment opportunities.
This year has been a trial by fire for students and educators alike, but it means many people have grown their online skills as a result—meaning a larger pool of people who can be reached with digital advertising. It’s also a year where more people are spending more time online than ever before, and using that time to research options for their future. Community colleges should seize this growth in technical literacy and increased online presence to reach a broad audience on social media platforms. Community colleges should also devote extra attention to the information on their website. Articles that speak directly to the economic benefits of online education, and that provide up-to-date information about job and employment prospects for certain careers, are particularly valuable.
The increase in employees working from home also gives community colleges a chance to reach them right where they are—at home, in their mailbox. Since our in-person recruitment opportunities are limited, personalized direct mail as part of a broader content marketing campaign is a great way to reach prospective students and their families.
3. Promote economic benefits of community college, as well as support programs.
Given how many students are struggling economically this year, it continues to be concerning how many are likely to pass up support programs simply because they don’t know about them.
First and foremost, community colleges need to make sure their students understand that they are eligible for financial aid—and that the student loans they might take out for community college are not nearly so onerous as the ones they would need for a four-year university. Furthermore, many community colleges offer benefits to students, from reduced bus fare to discounted gym passes, yet these benefits often go under-marketed, and therefore underused.
Finally, resources for students in crisis need to be marketed with care and sensitivity. Many community colleges have partnerships with other organizations to provide help for students facing hunger, homelessness, or other hardships. These resources should be made available where all students can find them easily, and without encountering any shame or embarrassment.
4. Highlight short-term certification programs, especially in trades.
If there’s any area in which community colleges should be able to stand out, it’s in their short-term certification programs. Not only are community colleges a primary source for these programs, but interest in certification is rising, especially among students who are anxious to enter the work force immediately.
There are strong economic reasons for why these programs should receive additional attention. Many trades offer well-paying jobs and are facing a skilled labor shortage. Any amount of training in these fields can set a student on the path to receive better wages and compensation than they would from having only a high school diploma. Many of these trades are also resistant to automation, meaning they will provide steady, well-paying jobs for years to come.
5. Appeal directly to Gen Z.
Gen Z poses several challenges for community colleges. First, they’re a much smaller demographic cohort than the Millennials who preceded them. Second, they are more risk-averse and are often jaded about four-year universities. Finally, community college does not seem to be on their radar the way it was for previous generations. Fewer members of Gen Z are enrolling, and the reasons seem to be because they don’t understand the benefits.
This is a trend that community colleges should be able to reverse with more direct marketing. Gen Z understands the importance of education—they just don’t want to rack up the enormous levels of college debt that typified the Millennial generation. Gen Z has witnessed first-hand the stress that repaying these loans has placed on older siblings, cousins, and friends. Community college is a way they can jumpstart their education without the higher levels of debt that have burdened their older peers.
Community colleges must remain a vital part of the American educational system.
Community colleges have a big narrative battle to with this fall, but they must do so if they are going to maintain their position as essential centers of ongoing learning in the American educational landscape. In this goal, they have a new ally. The first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, is herself a community college professor. She understands the importance of community college, and is already a powerful advocate for providing funding and additional resources.
However, community colleges must also take steps to market their own programs themselves. Only they can speak directly to the needs of prospective students in their area, and doing so is essential if they hope to communicate an effective message.
At Aperture Content Marketing, we have years of experience helping community colleges share informative, timely, and well-researched articles to their audiences. We understand the unique challenges that higher education faces in marketing their institutions, and we know that these challenges have never been more pressing than they are today. Contact us to learn more about our services.