Next Up for Enrollment Management: Community Colleges

John W. Dysart
President
The Dysart Group

Enrollment management models have been implemented, at least to some extent, at most colleges and universities.  Data-driven identification of prospective students, tracking of inquiries and applications, monitoring of communication and yield rates, marketing, strategic utilization of financial aid and well-planned financing options, along with retention and graduation plans have been commonplace.

This has been true across most sectors of higher education.  In many instances, however, enrollment management models have not been introduced or fully integrated at community colleges.

Market realities are now making enrollment management approaches essential, even at the community college sector.  Changing demographics, reductions in state subsidies for higher education, an improving economy and greater price sensitivity along with greater focus on return on investment in higher education are all influencing the college selection process, even at community colleges.

Enrollment at community colleges has historically been strong and peaked during the latest recession.  Across the country, the number of students attending community colleges has declined significantly in recent years.  Enrollment at community colleges has dropped by 13% since 2011.

A recent Inside Higher Education survey indicated that 88% of community colleges reported enrollment drops over the last two years.

These trends are important because community colleges still play a vital role in post-secondary education and in the economy.  Adult learners comprise nearly 40% of total college enrollments and community colleges have served this population well.

Community colleges enroll the largest percentage of part-time students in this country.

Community colleges serve one-quarter of all full-time students enrolled in higher education.

Enrollment declines at community colleges are placing many of them in a precarious situation.  As the number of students drops, so does institutional net revenue and sometimes long-term viability.

  • Many states continue to retrench when it comes to subsidies which makes a difficult financial landscape even worse.
  • Some community colleges are forced to cut institutional budgets and some have even been forced into staff, administrator and faculty layoffs.
  • As a number of states face population decreases they are more often seeking economies of scale and considering closing or consolidating state-funded institutions.

It is imperative for leadership teams at community colleges to be aware of these challenging conditions and begin to re-think policies, procedures, strategies and tactics to mitigate their impact.

While community colleges have historically emphasized their comparatively low tuition and fee costs to secure enrollments, the new market realities demand much more.

Tuition and fee rates at two-year public institutions vary significantly.  Rates can fluctuate from a low of $1,420 in California to a high of $7,530 in Vermont.  Regardless, the costs of attending community college are substantially lower than those in any other higher education sector.

These lower costs, however, have not shielded the schools from weakened enrollment outcomes.  While educating consumers on cost advantages remains important, it is critical to articulate a more specific value proposition.  Two-year colleges must actively educate prospective students and families on how enrollment provides a meaningful return on investment, improved career prospects, higher salaries and enhanced preparation for an evolving employment scene.

Proactively emphasize the benefits of attending a low-cost institution to eliminate or greatly reduce aggregate student loan debt.

Many families are concerned about student loan debt levels.  Community colleges have a great advantage over other higher education sectors when it comes to the percentage of students with no student loan debt.  While indebtedness most often reflects debt levels after only two grade levels, completing half of a four-year degree can still be advantageous in the marketplace even if students need to borrow for the final two years of their four-year degrees.

When addressing the topic of graduation rates at community colleges, focus on the graduation rates for full-time students since the outcomes are significantly better.

Community college graduation rates are often skewed by the inclusion of part-time students.  Students enrolling part-time are significantly less likely to graduate.

Graduation rates are usually an important point of consideration for the families of traditional-aged students and four-year institutions enroll predominantly full-time students.

The following are the graduation rates as a function of enrollment status at community colleges:

Consider internal policies and procedures to make completion and graduation more efficient and cost effective.

Take a close look at your internal rules regarding transfer credits and credits for lifetime experience.  While keeping such rules academically sound, it helps to be as generous as possible to facilitate the path toward a degree or certificate.  This can be an important selling point for prospective students.

Be deliberate in identifying prospective students. Place more emphasis on students directly out of high school.

I have been surprised how many two-year schools do not take advantage of student search options with entities such as American College Testing (ACT), The College Board (SAT) or National Research Center for College and University Admissions (NRCCUA).  Colleges and universities can purchase lists of prospective traditional-aged students who have either taken one of the standardized tests or completed a high school survey.

Establish a systematic communication plan for inquiries and applicants.

Communicating with prospective students is vitally important.  The communication, however, must be more than just view books, brochures, email campaigns and visit events.

-Be sure to include successful, employed graduates in your communication plan.

-Text messaging is more powerful than traditional email.

-Telephone outreach remains the most effective mechanism.

Introduce or increase the use of merit scholarships.

Four-year colleges and universities have been using various forms of merit scholarships to attract student interest for decades.  This is a tool often under-utilized by community colleges.  I refer to “merit” scholarships loosely as scholarships can be offered to recognize myriad student attributes.

Reconsider utilization of institutional and/or endowed financial aid funds for merit/talent and to meet financial need.

If funding is not available for merit recognition, repurpose endowed funds for this initiative.  Keep in mind, however, that even at community colleges, it may be necessary to set aside some funds for students to meet financial need.

Review the college web site for emphasis on recruitment.

Your web site can be an influential recruitment destination.  Make sure that for the home page, and every section throughout the site. that the emphasis is on providing information to prospective students.

This is the appropriate venue to help make your value proposition that extends beyond low tuition costs and includes new career tracks, preparation for advancement and increased earning potential.

Use your site to discuss the benefits of lower student loan debt.  The differences in monthly payments between two years of borrowing and four+ years of borrowing are substantial.

Demonstrate industry and employments trends in your area that coincide with your program offerings.

Check that your recruitment leadership team is using data-informed funnel analysis when making strategic and tactical plans.

Tracking and monitoring prospective student progression through the enrollment funnel is critical to inform the basics of the overall recruitment plan as well as day-to-day and week-to-week and month-to-month priorities.

Establish concrete recruitment goals as a function of counselor/recruiter.

You must do more than agree upon an aggregate recruitment/enrollment goal.  The objectives, whether tracked as headcount or credits, should be broken down and distributed as a function of individual recruiter/enrollment professional/admission counselor to bring individual accountability into the process.

Invest in professional development.

Make sure to set aside funds to facilitate participation in professional development for your admission personnel.  Think about attendance at recruitment learning events sponsored by organizations and associations beyond those strictly designed for community colleges.

Be more aggressive encouraging students to apply for financial aid.

Your financial aid operation must assume primary responsibility for encouraging new and returning students to apply for financial aid.  Simply packaging students who apply for financial aid is not enough in a competitive market when affordability is so important.  Evaluate your institution’s comprehensive plan to ensure that all students apply for financial aid early and complete the process well before the beginning of the next term.

Simplify the financial aid process.

Review the current institutional process for applying for financial aid.  Are there forms and steps that could be eliminated?  Is your office making use of available technology to ease the application process?  Designate a staff member outside of the financial aid office to apply and complete the process to evaluate customer friendliness.

Consider introducing or expanding athletic opportunities.

Starting or expanding athletic offerings can be a great way to increase enrollment.  While there are costs associated with athletics, proper introduction or expansion is generally worth the investment.

Now is the right time to start asking the specific questions about your enrollment management operation.  These are challenging times for community colleges and the marketplace is likely to get even more competitive in the coming years.  It is not too late to begin taking aggressive measures to implement proven enrollment management strategies and tactics to address demographic, resource and political obstacles.  Such steps are important for your survival and for the students you serve.