Community Colleges Offer Strong & Specific Value: Tell It & Sell It through Success Stories
By: Laura Sheehan
Inside Higher Ed’s recent report on the decline of community college enrollment hit home — especially because I was deep into writing an enrollment campaign for Three Rivers Community College at the time. Having spent several weeks interviewing students and alumni, I heard story after story showcasing the college’s strengths: quality academic and workforce programs, career success, student-faculty mentorship, affordability, support for work/life balance, etc.
These personal narratives formed the basis of the Three Rivers campaign, and we marketed the college’s success using the words and experiences of students. Influenced by this experience, I was disheartened to read about the national decline. Community college offers strong and specific value in the higher education landscape. Are we marketing these selling points effectively?
The article notes a steady decline in community college enrollment across the nation, starting in 2010. One contributing factor is the public’s disillusionment with higher education, particularly student debt. While community colleges are the solution to this problem (rather than the cause), they often get included in the anti-college rhetoric. Families are rightfully concerned about costs, so here’s an opportunity to own and tout the message.
My advice: Develop a digital enrollment campaign that highlights affordability (and then another to show value through outcomes). Build it on the authentic experiences of your students and alumni. Capture their words, tell their success stories.
At Three Rivers, we were able to message the affordability theme in various ways, to various target audiences. For example:
- For adult learners, the most popular message (after A/B testing) focused on the dollar range saved (“Save $20-$60k on your college degree”)
- Traditional aged students responded to a social justice theme (“High-quality & affordable college for all!”), tapping into the Bernie Sanders movement
- Parents clicked most on ads that used a caregiver’s tone (“Help them earn a degree, not a debt”) as well as cited the dollar amount saved (“Want to save $20-$60k on their college degree”)
Each ad connected to a student (or alumni) experience, giving the campaign authenticity and variety. Research shows that prospective students seek the experiences of current students. A student saying this to me in an interview is far greater than anything I could have created: “I see the situation my friends are in. One goes to a 4-year college and pays $30,000 a year. I can’t see starting out my adult life with that much debt!”
Lastly, heed the advice of Stephen Head, chancellor at Lone Star College in Houston. Lone Star was included in the article for its record-breaking enrollment. Head cites several potential reasons including affordability, workforce programs, and improved facilities— attributes that many colleges with declining enrollment could rightfully claim. The difference may be in Lone Star’s marketing vision. The college is “conscious of enrollment trends and has invested in marketing and advertisements, including on social media, that would appeal to younger students.”