It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: Three Keys to Beating Community College Enrollment Decline

Posted: May 21, 2021

Dana Cruikshank

4 min. read

It’s not easy being a community college in the aftermath of 2020. 

Enrollment numbers are down by 11-12% nationwide. You may not have the picturesque bell tower, the rock climbing wall, or the football stadium. Yet, here you are, competing with four-year flagships and for-profit Goliaths for increasingly fewer students. 

There are many untrue and unfair misperceptions about what you have to offer. Pop culture sees you as the 13th grade. Word has it that parents wouldn’t want their kids to “settle for” a two-year education. There’s a stigma that conflates your affordability with a lesser-than quality. Your one-person marcomm department is overtasked and underfunded. And your brand image is as marginalized as your audiences of underserved and minority learners. 

Through serving community colleges, which make up roughly half of our client portfolio, we know the struggle. More importantly, we’ve seen that growing enrollment, even in today’s economic climate, is attainable. 

Earlier this week, my colleagues and I hosted a webinar on community college enrollment marketing that zeroed in on three points: 

  1. You have an interesting story to tell. 
  2. You can advertise smarter and prove ROI.
  3. You can recruit with a personal touch. 

Make Community College “Sexy”

First, the community college experience is a rich human interest story. You change lives. You fuel regional economies. You create pipelines of workforce talent and make college possible for those who need it the most. In short, you are sitting on a wealth of emotionally resonant truths. 

Our client partners like Northern Virginia Community College and College of DuPage know this, and dispelled misperceptions head-on with their campaigns.

Their award-winning brand creative not only defied the cliches and earned their audiences’ attention, but also delivered results. NOVA notched a 19.1% increase in summer enrollment during the peak pandemic months. COD saw significant increases in leads at costs well-below industry averages. 

In another example, Alabama Community College System leaned on an age-old differentiator that took on a new meaning in the quarantine era: staying close to home. Community colleges offer a unique blend of affordability and convenience. ACCS played to this strength in their campaign, scaling the message to each school’s region-specific audiences and earning recognition in Insider Higher Ed.

Stop Buying Ads Like It’s The 1980s

On the media side, community colleges have no business squandering media dollars in expensive, unmeasurable awareness channels. The key is targeted awareness – that is, using data precision to reach the right audiences where they are. Gen Z learners aren’t listening to terrestrial radio or watching cable TV.

To drive the type of awareness that leads to conversion, shift your focus to cost-effective digital channels. It’s all about making media investment decisions based on measurable outcomes that can be improved over time. 

A case in point is Colorado Community College System. During COVID, CCCS was able to slash their statewide enrollment deficit by over 70% on a thinly-spread marketing budget. 

In an effort to stop hemorrhaging enrollments, the system carved out a limited reserve of advertising funds to be dispersed among their 13 institutions across the state. Rather than taking a carpet bomb approach, we worked with each individual college to assess the needs of their specific market. Then, we used regression analyses and data insights to shape a custom media plan and budget allocation strategy in response to those needs.

For example, the rural market of Otero Junior College called for a program-specific campaign strategy focused on local job market demand. This approach was wildly different from the media plan we created for the Community College of Denver’s dense urban market.

Make Recruitment Personal

Stronger creative and smarter media placements may get students to raise their hand and express interest. However, securing their decision to enroll comes down to how personal you make the recruitment process.

Think of recruitment as relationship building. A common pitfall is that most community colleges reach out to students only after they’ve applied. 

Engage with your prospects sooner. Send personalized emails through low-cost providers like MailChimp. Set up user-centric digital experiences. Mail a handwritten note on the back of an admissions postcard.

Not only will these touch points show prospects that you’re interested in them, they will allow you to learn more about their interests and make your communications increasingly personal.

For College of The Albemarle, we anchored our campaigns with a brand-driven microsite that invited students to tell us what they were interested in. We studied form fill data and browsing behavior, all while delivering a user experience that helped students make career decisions based on their goals. As the engagement arena for our campaigns, the microsite was instrumental in helping the college turn a multi-year enrollment decline into a 5% year-over-year increase. 

A New Outlook

The years to come will bring about seismic changes to higher education. Despite the headwinds, we don’t see community colleges as the victims of grim statistics, but as vanguards of positive new trends. 

After all, you are where people go to improve their situations. With breakthrough creative, smarter media, and personalized recruitment, you can improve yours. 

We’d love to set up a free consultation with you to talk through your enrollment marketing channels and see how our capabilities and experience may be able to help. Contact Dana Cruikshank at