The higher education environment is facing turbulence not seen since the social and political unrest on campuses across the country in the 1970s. From the student loan debt crisis and the exorbitant cost for a four-year degree, to DEI initiatives and tenure coming under fire, potential students are left wondering, is higher education worth it?
As of February 2023, reports from the White House stated that the federal student loan portfolio totals nearly $2 trillion. Many students are worried that the cost of a four-year degree will outweigh their investment, with wages not keeping up with the increasing rate of college tuition. However, many of these would-be students also know that, statistically, a college degree yields a lifetime of higher wages. Nonetheless, the highly politicized national discussion about student debt and the future of debt forgiveness further complicates the issue. Along with a decline in affordability, first-time, full-time enrollment is plummeting.
As the birth rate continues to dip and the college-aged student population shrinks, institutions continue to fight for more of this ever-decreasing pool. What’s more, post-pandemic challenges like insufficient student support, sociopolitical instability, rising mental health issues, and declining state higher-ed budgets for public institutions have created a cyclone of destabilization across higher education. Given the confluence of forces affecting higher ed, community colleges are uniquely positioned to claim their rightful place as a high-value solution for both the traditional 18–24 year old cohort and non-traditional adult learners.
At a significantly lower cost –per credit compared to private, four-year institutions, community colleges have the power to launch students into their futures with little to no debt, whether that future is continuing their education at a four-year institution, entering the workforce, or earning additional credentials and certificates to advance in their fields. Because of their unique combination of features and benefits, community colleges are well-poised to attract and engage potential students during these trying times in higher ed.
Notably, US News and World Report explains that on average community colleges cost about one-third of the price of in-state, four-year colleges. If tuition is a main concern, community college courses or transferring after two years can save individuals thousands of dollars, while still completing the necessary courses to receive a degree. Marketing communications and enrollment professionals at community colleges can own the value message and offer a substantive contrast to their four-year counterparts.
For students who are coming to community college with some college credit or who intend to pursue their bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution once they’ve earned their associate’s degree, the ability to transfer credit seamlessly is invaluable. Making this process easy and effective for students – and using actual testimonials from those who have benefited from transferring credits – provides even greater benefit and reinforces the concept that community college is a high-value solution.
Another major upside that community colleges offer is enhanced flexibility. Many four-year institutions expect students to dedicate full-time attention to their studies on campus. This often results in the need to live on campus – which is costly in itself – and limits students’ abilities to work full-time, parent, and participate in all the other activities that life can require. Community college is designed to meet the needs of both traditional, post-high school enrollees and non-traditional learners as well, such as military veterans, parents, and career-changers. Promoting the personal stories of students juggling hectic schedules (family, work, school) will help community colleges communicate that their scheduling flexibility can mean the difference between getting a college degree or not.
Serving Local Communities and Diverse Populations
Community colleges are an excellent resource for first-generation, veteran, non-traditional, minority, single-parent, and disabled students. According to the Department of Education, community colleges have diverse populations, with these students being 27% Hispanic, 12% African American, 6% Asian American, and 1% American Indian. As community colleges have historically understood – and met – the needs of a diverse student population and have cultivated an inclusive environment, their marketers can use this as yet another messaging pillar to attract prospective students. While other institutions are working hard to grow and promote their DEI initiatives, community colleges are ahead of the curve in understanding their local communities.
Community colleges often offer degrees similar to those at four-year universities, such as business, engineering, education, health sciences, and liberal arts programs. Additionally, community colleges also provide a variety of certifications and programs that are unique to two-year schools. This includes trade certifications across various industries, culinary training, and specialty programs for nurses, hygienists, and EMTs, among others. This makes community colleges an attractive option to a broader range of prospective students – and is a point of difference worth touting. These programs are essential for workforce training and technical education. US News and World Report claims nearly 10% of all community colleges now offer baccalaureate programs in some of their most highly studied fields, with the expectation that this number will rise.
Overall, community colleges have the opportunity to present themselves as a great option for degree-seeking students who want to stay local, save money and have scheduling flexibility. Community colleges need to market themselves as the most inclusive, student-centered, cost-effective, and value-rich option. Two-year institutions are a remarkable option for those students looking for a welcoming path on which to start their education and realize benefits that include continuing at a four-year institution, earning industry certifications, networking, and professional skill-building.
The Martin Group has decades of experience helping clients in the higher ed space refine their brand promise and target their audiences with a compelling message that moves prospects to act. We use qualitative insights and quantitative data to inform an integrated marketing strategy that considers the unique context of our higher ed clients. If you’re interested in learning more about how we’ve helped our higher ed clients achieve their goals, or if you’d like to consult with us about a specific marketing challenge you are facing, please contact John Jiloty, Senior Vice President, Growth Channels and Content at JJiloty@marktingroupmarketing.com.