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You’re Not Selling Community College, You’re Selling Careers

Community colleges should focus their marketing campaigns on helping their students envision the life they want after they graduate.

Community colleges and four-year universities offer very different post-secondary education experiences, but you often wouldn’t know it from their marketing. Four-year institutions feature images of students smiling with each other in front of classical architecture, sitting on a lawn underneath a stately oak tree, or raising their hands in a sunny lecture hall. They describe campus life, showcase student organizations, and push the thrill of the “college experience.”

Many universities do well with this advertising. Prestige is a heady concept to market, and these institutions often have it in abundance. The problem is that many community colleges try to follow in these footsteps, and don’t usually come off well in comparison.

There’s no shame or surprise here. Community colleges operate on smaller budgets than universities, and often serve a different student demographic. As the cost of college has grown in the past few decades, the allure of the “college experience” has consistently attracted students from the middle class on up. Meanwhile, budget-conscious students from lower-middle-class and working-class families have relied on community colleges for at least part of their college degree.

Unfortunately, the correlation between four-year colleges and upward social mobility has led many to believe that expensive universities are the best path toward stable, high-paying jobs. In fact, community colleges can prepare students just as well for a good career—without the hefty price tag. But in order to sell this message, community colleges need a shift in their marketing strategy. Here’s what they should keep in mind. 

1. Many prospective community college students don’t know what they want to study.

One challenge often faced by community colleges lies in attracting recent high school graduates who haven’t yet determined what they want to study. The year after high school is a particularly critical time for students, as students who delay beginning post-secondary education may end up dropping out of education altogether.

The problem is that students who don’t yet know what they want to study aren’t necessarily ready to begin paying for college. Four-year institutions have responded to this hesitancy by increasing the range of general education requirements, which students can take during their first year as they settle on a major. Unfortunately, the added year of general credits increases the cost of college for students significantly, and is an expensive way for students to settle on a degree program.

Community colleges have long offered a more affordable way for students to fill general education requirements. However, they can also provide guidance toward a degree program, by helping them focus on the kind of lifestyle they want to live after they graduate.

2. Instead of the college experience, community colleges should focus on life experience.

Choosing a degree isn’t just about finding a subject that is interesting to the student. It’s also about finding a program of study that fits their lifestyle. Many students pick a degree because they were good (or bad) at math, or because they liked a certain subject in school. However, once they begin looking for work many find it isn’t what they want. For example, jobs that require an unusual work schedule can be difficult for some people to adjust to, while some students may prefer a job that involves more physical activity over one that requires sitting at a desk.

Similarly, students may avoid a degree assuming it will lead to a lifestyle they don’t want, without realizing that the job opportunities in that field align more closely to their preferences than they realize. For instance, students who aren’t attracted to a typical 9–5 desk job may not realize that many jobs in digital fields can enable a flexible work environment that can let them work anywhere they’re comfortable. Manufacturing jobs that have often had a reputation for being dirty and requiring hard physical labor are growing more high-tech.

Helping students focus on the life they want to live after they finish their program can guide them toward a degree that better matches their long-term goals.

3. Attract prospective students by educating them about the job markets a career path can offer.

When community colleges focus on the kinds of careers students will have after they graduate, the appropriate marketing strategy becomes more obvious. Community colleges need to provide prospective students with the kind of in-depth career information that will help those students build an accurate image of what their lives will look like after they graduate.

This means describing the job market, possible career paths, and opportunities for ongoing education and continued professional development. It also means showing students what the day-to-day work is like so that they can understand whether those jobs fit the lifestyle they want. High-quality marketing materials that put careers first, and then show students which degree paths can lead them there, will be more successful than marketing campaigns that focus on the programs without connecting the dots to the lifestyle they enable.

Community colleges offer students a path toward a fulfilling career. That should market itself.

College years are fleeting. As exciting as they are, the most important thing is that students who graduate are prepared to enter the workforce. In this regard, community colleges have just as much to offer students as their more prestigious counterparts.

The key for successful marketing for community colleges is not to focus on the college experience, or even on the different subjects students may be interested in studying. The former won’t attract a student who has already been sold on the concept of a four-year degree, and the latter won’t help a student who hasn’t decided what to study. Instead, community colleges should focus on the careers that are available to students after completing a program, and offer a compelling vision of what a life with that career would look like. 

It’s not about the programs, it’s about the lifestyle the programs can help students achieve.

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