Five Practices to Recapture Market Share at Community Colleges
Historically, community colleges had little need to invest in student recruitment. As open access institutions, they could simply open their doors and allow students to come to them. Today, however, college leaders are finding this hands-off approach insufficient as they grapple with unprecedented enrollment challenges.
Since the height of the Great Recession, enrollments across the community college sector have declined for five consecutive years, resulting in a 16 percent loss in headcount since 2010. Although students commonly return to the workforce during economic recoveries, the current enrollment trend is not just cyclical. From 2002 to 2013, the undergraduate market share of community colleges fell from 44 percent to 38 percent—its lowest point in over three decades—in spite of economic trends. This suggests that the sector is losing students not only to the job market but also to other colleges and universities.
In this increasingly competitive landscape, community college leaders can no longer wait for prospective students to come to them. Instead, they must reach prospects earlier in their decision-making process to make the case for attending their specific institution. Moreover, as prospects increasingly choose to explore their educational options online, college administrators must begin to leverage their websites, digital advertising, and other technologies for student recruitment.
Because community colleges rarely have the luxury of outspending their competitors, they must pursue cost-effective strategies to grow enrollments. This year, the college presidents that partner with EAB’s Community College Executive Forum asked us to investigate scalable approaches to engage today’s prospects.
Here are five of the most progressive marketing and recruiting practices we uncovered through our research:
1. Customized Electronic Brochures
Given the wealth of college information available online, today’s prospects often evaluate their postsecondary options independently. Because these so-called “stealth prospects” never inquire, admissions staff have no opportunity to engage them before they decide whether to apply. To encourage these prospects to identify themselves sooner, some colleges offer specialized content in exchange for completed inquiry forms. For example, colleges may allow prospects to customize their own digital brochures by submitting their contact information, academic interests, and student service needs. After prospects provide this information, admissions staff can store it in a prospect database and use it to inform follow-up communications.
2. Proactive Live Chat
Today’s prospects are less likely to call into the admissions office with questions. Instead, many of them prefer to get their questions answered online. In response, a small but growing number of community colleges have installed live chat on their websites—and a few colleges have gone one step further to offer proactive chats. With this additional feature, any prospect who spends a given amount of time on the college website will receive a pop-up invitation to start a conversation. This encourages stealth prospects to identify themselves and interact directly with staff.
3. Standardized Communication Plans
Most community colleges interact with prospects infrequently on an ad hoc basis until they apply. However, at some colleges, administrators have designed standardized message sequences that all prospects receive according to a predetermined schedule after they inquire. Because the messages are drafted in advance, administrators can align their timing, modality, and content with the preferences of prospective students. These communication plans typically require a customer relationship management (CRM) solution to implement, but early movers attest that this upfront investment has yielded substantial increases in application volume.
4. Stalled Application Reminders
Many prospects who begin applications never go on to submit them. Some of these prospects may abandon their application after they reach a question they cannot readily answer, while others may be deterred by application fees. As community colleges increasingly shift toward online applications, administrators are finding more opportunities to retrieve information from incomplete forms. If a prospect fills in their name and contact information before navigating away from the application, admissions staff may follow up by email, phone, or even text message to remind them of upcoming enrollment deadlines and offer support with any remaining questions.
5. Mobile Geofencing Campaigns
Not all technology-based recruitment practices are costly. In fact, digital advertising can be less expensive than traditional advertising, partly because vendors can define smaller and more targeted audiences for digital ads. For example, the emerging practice of geofencing allows colleges to serve ads to mobile devices within specific physical locations. College marketing staff can use geofencing to promote programs to high school students at athletic events, working adults at industry conventions, or displaced workers at local job centers. This allows colleges to focus their limited advertising spend on the highest-yield locations within their service area.
As competition grows, community college leaders must replace their traditionally hands-off approach to enrollment management with scalable marketing and recruiting strategies. Progressive colleges are leveraging technologies that range from CRM to geofencing to grow enrollments and recapture market share. These innovative practices allow college leaders to maximize their limited recruitment resources, adapt to the shifting preferences of today’s prospects, and compete for mindshare in an increasingly crowded market.
Author Perspective: Community College
Author Perspective: Analyst