The 2020 fall semester has been tough for community colleges. How can they shift their strategy for winter and spring?
Over last spring and summer, when it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would have a drastic impact on college enrollment in the fall, many wondered if community colleges would see a boost in enrollment. The theory was that many students, facing an uncertain economic environment and at least one semester of remote learning, might opt for a more affordable solution closer to home.
Unfortunately, this scenario didn’t pan out. While college enrollment across the country saw a drop during the fall semester, community colleges took a harder hit than most four-year universities. As community colleges serve a lower-income demographic, it seems much of their enrollment base chose to buckle down rather than take on additional expenses. Meanwhile, many students at four-years simply took the semester off.
As a result, community colleges are facing a tough semester, with a strong possibility that the upcoming winter/spring semester will look the same. The challenge is: how best to respond? Here’s where to start.
1. Set expectations: the winter/spring 2021 semester won’t be “back to normal.”
First off, community colleges have a decision to make about what kind of marketing program to run. This is not “business as usual,” and probably won’t be for some time. The economic rug has been pulled out from under a majority of people. Do they try to convince students to sign up for courses that they avoided in the fall, despite knowing that this strategy was not persuasive over the summer? Or do they take the information they learned from fall enrollment into account, and adjust their marketing strategy accordingly?
Students are struggling, and it’s important that colleges not add to the pressure. Instead, colleges should pivot and focus on their community’s needs—even if those needs don’t immediately align with their own. They should reassure students and potential students that they are here to help them improve their lives when the time is right.
2. Think long-term: online education is here to stay.
It may be a “love-hate” relationship, but students and schools are being forced to embrace and expand distance learning. Many community colleges necessarily strained their online infrastructure when the pandemic hit and educators have had to rapidly revise their approach on the fly.
But we are all adjusting. Many of the difficulties that have surrounded online education are the result of the rapid expansion of these systems, as well as the steep learning curve faced by those who have had to adapt to them. While we can be certain that online education will never replace in-person learning, community colleges who strengthen and improve these systems have the opportunity to continue their online programs for students who need it post-pandemic, offering increased flexibility in a complex world.
3. Spread the word: market the full range of student support services.
Many community colleges have student support resources that are under-utilized, despite having demographics that could dearly benefit from those services. Often, this is the result of a lack of information. Students mistakenly believe they don’t qualify, or aren’t aware that the resources are even available.
These resources can include everything from financial aid programs, childcare facilities, on-campus food pantries, or transportation subsidies. If your community college has these resources, now is the time to talk about them. Students may be more willing to sign up for classes if they realize there are solutions available to some of their biggest enrollment challenges.
4. Listen to the community: consider developing new, pandemic-related resources.
Community colleges can also be taking this time to ask what new support programs they might add in response to the pandemic. With enrollment down, might they be able to expand their childcare program safely by spreading children across unused classrooms? Could they expand their food pantry or meal program to help students who are struggling with food shortages? Or do they have a counseling program in place to help students better manage their handle mental health?
Specific communities will have different needs, but the more your college can learn from students, faculty, staff, and other community leaders, the better able you will be to offer resources that meet them.
5. Put the students first: build trust with your community through reliable guidance.
Finally, now is the time to prove yourself as a trustworthy source of education information by not hesitating to offer realistic, pragmatic advice. Look at the market data and see what programs will offer students the best employment prospects when they graduate. Be honest about the time it will take students to complete a program, and the impact this may have on their home life. The more students are able to base their plans on facts and data, the less likely they will be to fail out of the course.
Amidst uncertainty, marketing is more important than ever.
The temptation among many community colleges who are facing lower enrollment this year is to cut their marketing budgets. However, doing so is only likely to leave them with fewer resources to attract and educate prospective students—just when this messaging is most important.
Instead, community colleges should prioritize engaging with their community, so that they are well-known for their services and opportunities over the long haul.