For-profit schools have large advertising budgets and a national reach. How should community colleges respond?
For many years now, community colleges have struggled in the face of declining enrollment and reduced funding. In a tight market, any competition can become more stressful, especially against organizations with large marketing budgets. Furthermore, while the for-profit higher education industry still comprises a fraction of the overall market, the students who turn to for-profits tend to be those who would otherwise enroll at a community college.
Community colleges can and do compete with four-year colleges, but they can also work in collaboration with them through transfer programs. Because of this, the biggest market challenges community colleges face in growing enrollment lie in reaching students who might otherwise not enroll, or else losing students to competing programs, of which for-profits pose a substantial threat.
Community colleges must be able to compete with for-profits not just to grow their own enrollment base, but because for-profits often lead to worse outcomes for students. Fortunately, community colleges have several advantages over for-profits which can help guide students toward the best choice.
Community colleges have a longer record of success and stability.
The greatest weakness of for-profit colleges is also the greatest strength for community colleges. Two-year colleges with an emphasis on vocations training have a long history in the United States, with major growth periods during both the Great Depression and following World War II. As the American professional class has become more educated, two-year degrees have become both a valuable credential in their own right, and an important stepping stone to four-year colleges.
For-profit colleges began as much more modest institutions helping to certify vocational students on a much shorter timeframe. Their growth into larger institutions with courses that compete with community colleges didn’t happen until the 1970s, when amendments to the Higher Education Act meant that students could apply federal student aid funding to for-profit programs. While this led to a boom in for-profit colleges for a time, subsequent years have shown the industry to be in a much more precarious position.
Since 2010, the for-profit higher education industry has taken a nose dive, with hundreds of campuses closing and no sign of a slow-down. While community colleges have been facing similar challenges with enrollment, they’ve proven to be more stable than the for-profit market. Students who enroll at community college are at significantly less risk to find themselves stranded partway through an expensive degree with no way of completing it.
Community colleges are becoming more competitive in their online offerings.
One area in which for-profit colleges have outpaced community colleges is in online degree courses. The University of Phoenix was one of the earliest of these, with its first online program launched in 1989. For many years, online course programs faced a deal of scrutiny with regard to the quality of the education they provide and the means of assessing student work. However, this stigma has largely vanished in the past decade, such that many community colleges consider expanding their online course offerings to be a top priority.
Online courses are especially important to non-traditional and lower-income students, who form a key demographic group for community colleges and for-profits alike. These students often need to balance the demands of work and family life against their coursework. Because of this, they often prefer online courses as a more flexible way to complete their degree program. By expanding their online course catalog, community colleges can better serve one of their core demographics instead of losing them to for-profit colleges.
Community colleges will need to think more strategically about their marketing.
For-profit colleges have invested heavily in marketing materials, many of which are strong on flash but low on substance. Not only that, but they are big spenders in online advertising. Just a few years ago, the University of Phoenix was purported to be the top spender on Google Ads, with a daily ad budget that has been known to run into the hundreds of thousands.
This type of spending is an unrealistic model for community colleges—and not just because of the ad budgets involved. Rather, community colleges should focus on lengthier, data-driven marketing resources that inform and educate students about their options. Not only does this model serve students, it is advantageous to community colleges, who benefit from the research.
By combining informative, industry-focused articles with a targeted multichannel marketing strategy, community colleges can reach students throughout their area with the resources they need to make a good choice.
For community colleges, information is still their best ally.
The numbers don’t look good for for-profit schools. Students who look at the default rate on student loans for for-profit graduates, or who compare costs and outcomes, will clearly see that community colleges are a better option. However, finding the data and sharing it with students can be a time-consuming process, especially for colleges seeking cost-effective marketing methods.
At Aperture Content Marketing, we help community colleges by connecting them with our content library of high-quality articles that they can then share with their students. Our multichannel marketing platform makes it easier for colleges to reach their base on social media, through micro sites, and by traditional print mailers.
If you are interested in learning more about our services, contact us for a demo.