The biggest barrier to entry isn’t lack of resources—it’s lack of knowledge about resources.
It’s no secret that the cost of post-secondary education has had an effect on enrollment rates, even among community college students. In fact, in a recent survey, nearly half of all college students listed cost of living or cost of tuition and course materials as the biggest barrier to continuing their education. This is bad news, not just for community colleges, but for the country. Community colleges provide critical training and education for many high-demand jobs, and unless students enroll and complete their courses, the gap between the jobs available and those qualified to fill them will continue to grow.
In the face of this dire state of affairs, we would like to offer a ray of hope. What if the hurdle isn’t lack of funding, but lack of access to the funding that exists?
There is good reason to believe that the perception among prospective students that they will not be able to afford community college education is false. In reality, many measures have been taken on both the state and federal level to make community college education accessible. The problem is that these programs are not well known, and as a result are not reaching the students they are intended to help.
Fortunately, this is an area where community colleges can step in. Here’s how.
1. Review your own institution’s financial aid resources.
When was the last time your community college took a complete accounting of available student aid programs? If you have done so, is that information available in a centralized, trackable, and accessible format? Between ever-shifting government programs, staff turnover, and policy changes, it’s all too easy for community colleges to lose track of student aid resources that could be helping prospective students enroll.
To get a handle on the resources available, we recommend community colleges periodically review aid programs and make sure their student support offices are kept up to date. These resources include:
- Free tuition programs within your state. According to Forbes, about half of all US states offer some form of free community college tuition program. However, the details and qualification criteria vary from state to state, and much of it isn’t well publicized. Review your own state’s program and take note of the requirements.
- Federal student aid. Numerous federal programs exist to lessen the cost of community college education, from Pell Grants to work study programs to subsidized and unsubsidized student loans.
- Other grant and scholarship opportunities. Hundreds of grant and scholarship opportunities exist across the country, many of them offered by community colleges themselves. Check to see if your own institution offers a scholarship, or if you have a particular tie to a grant opportunity.
- Aid for other education costs. Tuition isn’t the only expense. If your college has any textbook waivers or transportation discounts, these should also be documented.
2. Help your students apply for programs and access aid.
Documenting student aid resources is a first step toward making students more aware that these programs exist. Unfortunately, the misconceptions about student aid at community colleges run deep. For instance, many students counterintuitively believe that, because community colleges are cheaper, they don’t qualify for student aid programs.
Perhaps this is why each year hundreds of thousands of eligible students fail to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. According to a federal study, roughly a third of these students did not complete a FAFSA either because they did not have enough information, or because they did not realize it was a possibility.
It isn’t hard to understand where the issues lie. Navigating federal application forms can be difficult, especially for young students. Many of those who do fill out a FAFSA form do so with their parents’ help. But many parents of first-generation college goers have never heard of a FAFSA form, let alone filled one out. Meanwhile, families living in poverty struggle to find the time or mental energy to work through an application form.
Still others avoid filling out the form because they are under misapprehensions about how federal student aid works. For instance, a student who is anxious about taking on debt may not accept a Pell Grant under the mistaken belief that they will have to pay it back. Other students (and their families) are put off from filling out these forms because they’re afraid of making a mistake and being penalized.
To put it bluntly, community colleges should do everything in their power to help students complete their applications, even if it means sitting down with students individually and walking them through the form line by line.
3. Market student support resources to your broader community.
After taking stock of your financial aid resources and creating resources to help your students apply for them, the next step is to get the word out. Putting a page on your website or hanging a poster in your student center won’t cut it, because students already have to be looking at your community college to recognize these resources are available. This is where marketing comes in.
Both web-based marketing strategies, such as social media campaigns, and physical strategies, such as direct mailers, can help messaging reach the right audiences. Social media posts can be spread and shared by anyone who might know someone for whom a program would be a good fit. Meanwhile, direct mailing campaigns offer a longer format in which to provide more detailed information, and because they do not disappear as soon as a student scrolls past, they are more likely to make an impression.
We at Aperture Content Marketing specialize in marketing for community colleges, and have first-hand experience with the effectiveness of information-based marketing. We offer a library of content on different programs and resources which community colleges can draw from when they launch a campaign, and our multichannel approach allows them to distribute content on mobile-friendly microsites, through direct mail, and on social media.
Our philosophy is simple: as an educational institution, your marketing should be as information-based as your curriculum.
Educating your students about the resources available to them is the first step toward enabling their enrollment.
Student aid exists for the express purpose of lowering enrollment barriers for students. It’s a shame to see these resources go underused simply because the people they are intended to help don’t realize they exist. And on a more practical level for community colleges, investing in marketing campaigns to raise awareness and support staff to assist students is a no-brainer. Enrollment rates only have to go up a little to repay that investment in full.
That said, financial concerns are far from the only issue preventing students from enrolling. We’ve written more about this issue in our latest white paper, “Dismantling the Obstacle Course: How Community Colleges Can Use Content Marketing to Negotiate Enrollment Barriers.”
And of course, if you would like to learn more about how our own marketing resources can help your community college reach more students with information on financial aid, we would be more than happy to talk with you about your needs. Contact us today to get started.