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How to Build Trust Among Students During Tough Times

Ultimately, your goal should be to win the trust of your entire community—not just students.

After an uncertain summer where the choices students would be making about college for the upcoming year hung in the air, the enrollment numbers are in and the results haven’t fallen in favor of community colleges. Many students have decided to forego a remote term at a four-year university, but rather than choosing an option closer to home, they’ve instead opted for a year off college altogether.

For community colleges, technical schools, and vocational institutions who had hoped to attract more students (which is usually the pattern in an economic downturn), this has been a severe disappointment. However, now that community colleges know how students are responding to the pandemic, their next step is to formulate a response of their own.

As bleak as prospects look at the moment, there is still reason to think proactively about the future. And community colleges should do this not by looking toward prospective students alone, but to their community as a whole. 

Your community college plays a central role in your community, even for those who aren’t students. The better your reputation is among your community—including businesses who rely on you for recruitment, senior citizens who come to you for lifelong learning courses, and those who turn to you for other services—the more people will think of you when they are looking for options.

That’s why, to be successful in the long run, community colleges must focus on building trust right now. Here’s how they can go about it.

1. Speak directly to the diverse needs of your students.

Trust means listening to your community and understanding their needs as well as you understand your own—and your community isn’t just one kind of student. Teens just coming out of high school will have a very different outlook than middle-aged students preparing for a new career path. Rather than try to appease all groups by appealing to none, create niche messages that directly address the concerns of each group.

2. Show up in your community.

Every member of your community should know who you are and what you do—and their impression of your work should be a good one. Look for ways you can coordinate with other services in your community to help. You might be able to partner with a food pantry, or run a volunteer training program, or create a guide to help small businesses find local relief options. Help your community find the help it needs to stay strong.

3. Be the source of reliable information.

When people are facing hard choices or grappling with conflicting accounts, you want to establish yourself as an information source they can count on. That includes information related to courses and job prospects as well as that pertaining to your community. If you are a source they trust when times are bad, the same will hold doubly true for when times become good again.

4. Educate your stakeholders about the value of community college.

Community college educations offer a number of advantages over four-year colleges, yet many people—including taxpaying citizens, prospective students, potential teachers, and concerned parents—still view them as a lesser choice. Don’t just make the case for a community college education to prospective students. Demonstrate your worth to everyone, so that it becomes a place prospective students aspire toward.

Aperture helps community colleges achieve this through thoughtful, well-researched articles that back up advice with facts and figures. By presenting relevant information, these articles can persuade even the most skeptical stakeholder of your worth.

5. Respond to changing situations to provide the resources your students need.

The resources your students needed last year won’t be the same as the ones they rely on this year, and your community college needs to change accordingly. Don’t fall into the trap of relying on old content to apply to novel conditions. Instead, focus on how the situation is changing, listen to your students and other stakeholders, and update your resources in response.

6. Draw attention to your online resources.

Finally, with so many in-person classes on hold, prospective students will be turning to the internet faster than ever to find what they need. Create online resources that will help your students, and share them on your marketing channels—including social, print, and email—to help your students learn about exciting new options they may not have heard about before.

At Aperture, we specialize in multichannel marketing options for community colleges that can help get informative articles about online courses, employment guides, and other resources in front of the students and community stakeholders who need them.

Avoid the hard sell during tough times.

Building trust among your students and your community will serve your college well in the long term. But if there’s one thing community colleges should avoid more than anything, it is the kind of hardball sales tactics that can sometimes make students feel pressured to make a decision that won’t be right for their education.

Not only does this undermine the trust you have worked so hard to build, it’s also unlikely to be successful. When times are hard, some prospective students won’t be able to sign up no matter what you do. Trying to convince them to enroll when they don’t have the money to pay the bills will only leave them with a bad impression.

Instead, put the needs of your community first—both the students you have who may need to take time off, and future students who may remember you when they’re ready to take classes again.

Keep your focus on helping your students make the choices that are right for their lives right now without an agenda, and you’ll provide value for your entire community. When they’re ready to move forward with their education, that’s what they’ll remember you for.

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