Why community colleges should follow a career-oriented marketing strategy.
Community colleges have long held an essential place in America’s education system as an affordable alternative to four-year institutions that prepare workers with the practical skills they need to enter the job force. However, despite the crucial role community colleges play in bolstering employment among American workers, the past decade has seen enrollment in public two-year community colleges fall 33%, from a high of 7.2 million in 2010, to a low of 5.4 million in 2019 (it has risen only slightly in the years since, with the Covid–19 pandemic a significant unknown factor in student enrollment rates).
In response, community colleges have adopted a range of strategies, with varying success. Some have cut programs with low enrollment. Others have sought to emulate larger universities, even going so far as to build dorm rooms for out-of-state students. Still others have advocated for expanded access to community college education, working with governments and corporations to cut or even eliminate the cost of education.
We here at Aperture Content Marketing have a twenty-year history of working with community colleges to improve their marketing strategies. From our roots as a consortium of community college marketers through our development into a multichannel content marketing service, we’ve had ample opportunity to learn about which marketing strategies serve community colleges well, and which fall short. In that time, we have formed three primary observations which lie at the heart of our marketing philosophy:
- The marketing strategies that work for four-year universities will not be successful in appealing to prospective community college students.
- Educating prospective community college students on potential career paths will help them make better decisions about their post-secondary education, and give them an advantage on the job market once they graduate.
- Rather than market the college experience, which would put them in competition with four-year universities, community colleges should focus on jobs, which would put them in collaboration with community colleges around the country.
As a community college marketing service, we’ve seen first-hand the effects our campaigns have had on enrollment when our customers follow a career-oriented marketing strategy. Here’s why.
I. Community colleges should not follow the marketing example of four-year institutions.
Students who attend four-year universities tend to be alike in several key factors: They either have a strong internal drive to attend college, or they come from a family background where going to college is an expectation. Many have had teachers or other adults in their life encouraging them to further their education. Relatively few have considered not attending college as an option—even if they are undecided about their major. For many of these students, whether or not to attend college is an argument with a foregone conclusion. The only real question is which college?
Because so many middle-class families take college for granted as the path toward a stable, upwardly-mobile lifestyle, universities have already overcome one of their most significant marketing hurdles: convincing a prospective buyer that their product is worthwhile. Instead, universities encourage prospective students to view college as a time of exploration and self-discovery, where they are free to pursue subjects for the joy of learning, and to indulge their intellectual curiosity for its own sake.
Accordingly, their marking programs highlight key differentiators between themselves and other four-year institutions. These include:
- School prestige
- Famous alumni
- Academic credentials
- Networking opportunities
- Campus lifestyle
- Sports programs
- Student housing
They aren’t trying to sell college, they’re trying to sell their college.
By focusing on the “college experience,” universities are able to effectively sidestep pragmatic questions such as “how much does this cost?” or “will this prepare me for a career when I graduate?”
These questions are unavoidable for community college students.
Students who are considering community college are often dealing with a different set of realities. They may have struggled more in school, and are not confident that they would be able to complete a program. They may come from more economically challenged backgrounds, which means that they are more price-conscious. They may have fewer connections in their life encouraging them to attend college.
Another key differentiator is that many potential community college students may have already attended some college, and are back in school as part of a career change. They may have a family to support, or a day job, or any number of significant obligations. This “non-traditional” demographic, who are typically older than the usual “college-age” adult, are the largest untapped pool of potential community college students in the country.
The twenty-six-year-old single mother looking at nursing school as a way to better support her family does not care about school prestige. The fifty-four-year-old worker who has just been laid off his factory line job and is looking for a new career does not care about campus housing. Education for them is not a luxury, but a practical necessity.
Overall, prospective community college students are more likely to view education as a means to an end rather than something to pursue for its own sake.
Given these concerns, community colleges should be following a markedly different marketing path than the one favored by four-year universities. Unlike four-year colleges, which have the luxury of marketing to a base that is already sold on college as a concept, community colleges need to be more proactive in demonstrating their worth.
And the most reliable way to demonstrate worth is by showing the value of a certificate or two-year degree on the job market.
II. Educating students about their career options can improve their confidence and give them better negotiating skills in the workforce.
Many community college marketers assume that their students already understand what various professional career paths will look like once they graduate, and there’s a simple reason why: By the time a student reaches the point of contacting a community college about classes, many have already decided what program they want to follow.
However, to fully educate prospective students, community colleges should be ready to start from the ground up. Too many students have only the barest notion of what a career looks like. Unless they have a friend or family member who works in that industry, their perceptions may be formed primarily by cultural stereotypes, or what they see on TV.
For instance, a prospective student may have heard from somewhere that IT jobs pay well, but they may not picture themselves in that role. Perhaps they don’t like the idea of sitting at a desk all day, staring at code. Or maybe they feel like the work is too impersonal, and want something that makes them feel more connected to other people.
It might surprise prospective student to hear that there are IT jobs in the manufacturing industry that would let them work on the factory floor, programming and maintaining high-end robotics. Or maybe that student would rather become a UX designer, where they can be involved in developing technology that provides a better experience for users.
Or maybe that student doesn’t realize that the boring desk job they had in mind actually involves a lot of problem solving, collaboration with coworkers, and hands-on labor setting up and maintaining high-tech working environments.
The growing skills gap must also be taken into account. Many students are unaware of which jobs are in high demand, and are therefore offering more attractive benefits with greater job security. Community college is the best path toward qualifying for many of these careers.
The point is that many prospective students don’t know enough about potential careers to even think about applying to a program. And that means that it falls to community colleges to expose those students to a broader range of career options. This means sharing articles that talk about:
- Job market statistics, such as employment opportunities, expected wages, and projected growth.
- In-demand careers, especially those experiencing a skills gap, and how to qualify for them.
- Career paths, including further education, advanced certificates, and high-value specializations.
- Lifestyle information, such as work hours, working conditions, and employment seasonality.
- Day-to-day working environment, and the range of career possibilities.
Making students aware of what these jobs can offer can convince students to enroll, motivate them to complete their program, help them navigate the job market once they graduate, and even give them more pride in their work once they find employment.
The problem is that providing reliable information about all the possible programs offered at a community college is exhaustive work. The good news is they don’t have to do it alone.
III. Collaborative marketing with other community colleges is better than competitive marketing with four-year universities.
We said earlier that four-year universities market in a highly competitive environment. Many have used this to their advantage, cultivating such an intense loyalty in their student body that their marketing work is practically done for them.
By contrast, community colleges are designed to be local, which means they spend much less time competing with other community colleges for students. If a community college can successfully make the case for a professional certification program or a two-year degree, then it follows that they will be the natural choice for students in their community.
There’s another aspect to community college marketing that, perhaps, isn’t spoken about enough. That is the problem of perception. Too many people view community colleges as second-rate institutions that prepare students for second-rate jobs. This mindset, while misguided, nevertheless seeps into students who are presented with community college as an option for post-secondary education.
This is, perhaps, why so many community college marketing campaigns try to recreate the glamour of a four-year university. However, in our experience, this is a false step. Few students will be convinced to view their community college as an institution of prestige, while those that are tempted by the “college experience” may not be satisfied by what a two-year college has to offer.
Instead, community colleges need to keep their focus on the thing they do best: preparing students for the kind of jobs that make them essential to the economy. Many of these jobs make for excellent careers, with good benefits, high stability, and opportunities for long-term growth. In fact, the public perception of these jobs is badly outdated. Far from the dirty, dangerous manual labor these jobs used to entail, many of these jobs are now both safer and more sophisticated.
Community colleges can work together to shift public perception about the programs they offer not by trying to make themselves into copycats of four-year institutions, but by setting the record straight about the jobs and careers available to graduates with a two-year degree or advanced certification.
Sharing marketing resources is an effective strategy. If a community college in Indiana has had success in marketing its agricultural program, another community college with a similar geographic and demographic profile can benefit from the same approach. If an article on career prospects for nurses grows enrollment for a community college in Arizona, that article, with a few revisions, can do the same for a community college in Florida.
Very few industries have the opportunity to use collaborative—rather than competitive—marketing to their advantage. Community colleges should take notice.
Community college marketing should begin with jobs. But it shouldn’t end there.
As we’ve said throughout this article, community college students will be attracted to a school not by the lure of the “college experience,” but by the career they are hoping to pursue after they graduate. Community colleges need to focus on educating learners about the jobs in their area if they hope to increase enrollment.
But the hope of a promising career, while it may make a prospective student want to sign up for courses, may not get them all the way if there are significant barriers to access. This is especially true for non-traditional students, who have taken time off school after high school, may be working full- or part-time, and may have a family to support.
For these students, deciding factors may be a more flexible class schedule, day care options, private rooms for nursing mothers, and financial aid programs.
The truth is that community colleges have so much to offer their students. These support services are all worth showcasing to prospective students who are trying to decide if they can make a certification or career program work for them. But to be interested in a community colleges support services, a prospective student first has to be interested in a degree program. And that will only happen once a student understands the career path that will be open to them after they graduate.
If you need help marketing your community college’s career programs and support services, contact us. Our mutlichannel marketing services include a print magazine, digital microsite, and social media content. Community colleges who work with us have full access to our content archive, which includes articles on a range of career-oriented subjects that they can use as-is or edit to fit the needs of their area. To learn more about our services, contact us today.