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When You’re Finished Changing, You’re Finished

Ben Franklin’s surprising wisdom for the 21st century.

You may not have heard Ben Franklin’s kinder take, but everyone knows the business dictum, “Change or Die.”

Franklin didn’t just have a way with aphorisms; he followed his own advice. His life was a constant story of re-invention. He started work at the age of 12 as a printer’s apprentice and went into the business by 22. He established a financially successful printing business and even franchised it. Franklin’s biggest success came from the wildly-popular Poor Richard’s Almanack. A groundbreaking advocate for public schooling, Franklin called for the education of African Americans and also began the first subscription library in the American colonies.

His injunction to change, however, particularly resonates with those of us in higher education. What with declining numbers of 18-year olds, an increasing debt-averse population, and more job opportunities, there is a sharp shift away from college enrollment. 

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of college students has decreased by nearly three million since 2011. The rating firm Moody’s reports that an average of 11 colleges and universities have shut down every year for the last three years. That rate is expected to grow. Williamette University President Steve Thorsett pointedly commented to the New York Times, “This is a business. It’s not for profit, but we have to keep the lights on. We have to build a model that’s sustainable.”

So what are colleges to do? “Many institutions are adding programs tied to real-time workplace demand, including online courses that appeal to people who are balancing their educations with families and work,” the Times points out in “Radical Survival Strategies for Struggling Colleges.” Assessing the national higher ed landscape, they highlight the need for “ramping up money-saving accelerated programs,” “employment guarantees,” and adding “subjects that connect with real-world demand.” 

In other words, the mission and approach of community colleges have gone mainstream!

Community colleges are already addressing local job markets. They are offering clear pathways to in-demand careers, and providing shorter degrees programs and hands-on training.

But this is no grounds for complacency. After all, enrollment challenges affect community colleges as well as the four-year institutions. Community colleges are adapting to the demands of the new century by pioneering important technological and educational innovations. Many schools are increasing enrollment by developing directed curricula in partnership with local and national corporations. They offer stackable credentials for those seeking to scale-up their certifications, and are adding programs for a wide range of age groups, including K-12 and seniors. Online coursework and programs are an essential component of these new flexible pathways.

The vital role of community colleges is now resonating across a broader demographic, and demand for this type of education is higher than ever. Yet most people don’t sufficiently understand it. They are unaware of what community colleges have to offer. So the warning “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished” is equally applicable to this sector of higher education.

How can community colleges change public perception?

Community colleges face the challenge of public perception. The work of marketing departments is decisive. But marketing professionals are now in an exceptional position to successfully address both the unwarranted historical stigma associated with community colleges, and the public’s lack of information about the opportunities they offer. 

Workplace demand, the middle-skills gap, and young people who need job-ready credentials have created a hunger for career programs. Now is the time for community colleges to step into the limelight with informative content marketing which can showcase their offerings and provide clear, accurate data on job prospects and future income.

Recent studies have shown that not only is a career-focused education growing in popularity, but the community college model of learning is often more effective. According to a Columbia University Research study on the “Effects of Institutional Factors on the Success of Community College Students,” the large classroom sizes typical of introductory classes at four-year colleges are negatively correlated with student success. By contrast, community colleges provide a more personalized approach to learning, which helps students ease into their new academic environment.

How does Gen Z view the cost of college?

Colleges must be ever-mindful of the all-important issue of college cost. Old Ben famously said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Even more pointedly, he noted, “Think what you do when you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty.”

One would think Franklin was speaking directly to Gen Z, the most debt-averse generation in decades, or Gen Y, which earns less than any generation before it. The task of higher ed marketing is to show the value of investing in higher education. In point of fact, additional credentials are not merely valuable, but essential for the good jobs of the 21st century. But this is not always understood, especially by those caught in a cycle of low-wage employment.

It is helpful to make clear cost comparisons among community colleges, for-profit proprietary schools, and four-year universities. Well-designed infographics can effectively illustrate the case for the non-profit two-year. Many young people are startled to learn of the level of savings which result from beginning at their local community college and transferring to a university. 

Finally, prospective enrollees find that current data on earnings projections completes the picture. They want a real return on investment. This is especially important as young people come to realize that skills acquisition can be as necessary, or even more necessary, than a degree. 

Most community colleges are in a position to capitalize on the strong national trend towards real-life job skills and opportunities. Experience demonstrates that targeted messaging about concrete career programs results in increased enrollment.

What changes can you make to connect with the growing popular demand for career training?

Are your potential students aware of your niche programs, like cybersecurity, mechatronics, or fitness certification? Are they aware of key data, such as salary ranges for different levels of certification? What about the most in-demand skills in your region? Finally, are you winning advocates among school guidance counselors in your service area?

Young people may also be wondering what it is like to be a nurse or medical technician. You can help with that. Do potential non-traditional students know that community college counselors are there to help them navigate enrollment and course selection? How about assistance with the dreaded FAFSA? Many students are motivated by reading success stories of people like themselves reaching their dreams through community college!

Ben Franklin gets the last word: “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

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