Understanding the demographic makeup of community colleges can help institutions better support students through programs that meet their real-world needs.
Most people, when picturing an average college student, envision a young adult, backpack slung over one shoulder, textbook under one arm, strolling across a campus toward classes, or a study group, or some other function of student life. While this stereotype is a fair enough approximation of a college student at a four-year university, it fails to grasp the nuances of enrollment at community colleges. As it turns out, these are crucial differences with significant ramifications for students and the colleges which serve them.
We’ve recently tackled some of these issues in depth in our new whitepaper, “Dismantling the Obstacle Course: How Community Colleges Can Use Content Marketing to Help Students Negotiate Enrollment Barriers.” One of the key insights of our report is that community college marketing needs to meet students where they are at—and that means recognizing that students attending two-year colleges differ from those enrolled at four-year institutions in key ways.
Here are four of the most significant demographic differences, and what they mean for community college marketers.
1. 31% of community college students are 25 or older.
According to data from the 2020 census, community college students trend older than students in four-year universities. The numbers show that 25% of first-year students at two-year colleges are over the age of 25, and that by the second year that number has risen to 36%. (The corresponding numbers at four-year schools are 12% and 21% respectively.)
The trend is even clearer if we examine the age group that includes students who are most likely to be starting college directly after high school (15–19-year-olds) and how that percentage shifts between years one and two. At community colleges 54% of first-year students are in the 15–19 demographic, compared to 70% at four-year universities. By the second year, many of the students at both universities have moved into the 20–24 age group. But at community colleges, a larger share of students start their first year already in the 20–24 age group, and age into the 25+ group after their second year.
What this indicates is that while most community college students are still in their twenties, most have also taken some kind of time off between high school and starting college, even if just for a year or two. While four-year universities are raising enrollment by talking to high schoolers, community colleges should look toward young adults already in the work force.
2. Over a quarter of community college students are parents.
Community college students may also be taking time off after high school because they are more likely to be parents than those attending four-year institutions. In a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, parents form 26% of the student body at community colleges. In an even more telling statistic, of students who are parents, 46% attend community colleges. (The rest are split somewhat evenly between other institution types, such as public four-year universities and private for-profit colleges.)
There are many ways to read these numbers, but the most suggestive is that parent-students are attending community colleges because that is the most workable solution for them, given the needs of their families. This is often because parent-students need options close to where their partner and other support networks are located. They can’t travel to a four-year institution, nor can they share a dorm room with a fellow student. Community colleges hoping to retain these students will need to continue providing support, and will also need to market said support.
3. 53% of community college students are employed at least part time.
According to the US Census data, more than half of all community college students are working, compared to 43% of four-year students. Furthermore, of working students at community colleges, 23% are working full-time jobs.
Many students choose community colleges because the greater flexibility, including early morning classes, evening classes, and online classes, can better accommodate their work schedule compared to four-year colleges which often presume full-time attendance. (86% of four-year students attend full time, compared to 68% of community college students.)
Community college students are often working out of financial necessity, which makes sense for an older student body with a large number of parent-students. However, community colleges are often more trade-focused, with work opportunities built in as part of the curriculum and work-study programs in place with local employers. The focus on careers for community colleges cannot be overlooked in their marketing.
4. One third of community college students identify as Hispanic.
Finally, whereas the percentage of students who identify as white is almost identical for community colleges and four-year schools, Hispanic students comprise a significantly larger portion of the student body at community colleges (32% to 18%).
One reason is that community colleges provide English as a Second Language (ESL) courses which are attractive to many Hispanic communities. Community colleges hoping to attract more students from this demographic—or who have other local communities in need of ESL courses—should consider translating their marketing materials to reach the audiences who most need them.
Community colleges serve a different purpose than four-year universities. Their marketing needs to reflect that.
Many community colleges, aware of these demographic differences, have instituted programs to help their students balance coursework with their personal time. It may even be the case that student demographics are what they are because community colleges are the institutions going the extra mile to support older working students with families to support.
However, it’s all too often the case that these programs are underused because not enough students know about them—and that’s something marketing can fix. By devoting more resources toward promoting support programs, community colleges help students while furthering their own enrollment goals.
At Aperture Content Marketing, we support community colleges through multichannel marketing campaigns that draw on a library of informational content to help students make better-informed decisions about their education. Contact us today to learn more about how we could be supporting your institution.