Attention Community Colleges: The Future of Higher Education is Flexibility

For too long, students were presented with three basic options for success after high school: go to a 4-year college, go to a community college, or start at a community college and finish at a 4-year college. Today’s students and continuing education learners have seen this false choice for what it is—and they are demanding better options.

And who can blame them?

These students see years of stagnating wages, disappearing industry sectors, the rise of job-replacing technology, and ever-increasing tuitions. Add in the devastating effects of the COVID-19 outbreak—and with it the essential failure of delivering high-quality online learning experiences by most schools—many students are questioning the return on investment (ROI) with once sought-after universities and colleges.

There is a clear disconnect between the value schools think they offer and their students’ reality. A perfect example is how schools around the country, including elite institutions like Harvard and NYU, announcing plans to maintain (or even raise!) their tuitions for Fall 2020 while still delivering 100 percent online courses.

For community colleges, this is an opportunity to step out of the shadow of all those laurels on which their 4-year colleagues are resting.

The future of higher education is flexibility.

Today’s learners are demanding flexibility—in scheduling, in cost, and in pathways directly into family-sustaining careers.

Who is better positioned to meet this future than community colleges? That’s been their pitch for decades.

However, while the pitch still applies, the workforce expectations have changed. For example, a recent study by the Strada Education Network showed more than 60 percent of Americans strongly prefer non-degree programs and skills training over conventional degree programs.

Schools have an opportunity to serve modern learners and appeal to their interests in ways the traditional providers fall short. This could include offering flexible and efficient programs like certificates, micro-credentialing, school-corporate partnerships, work-study degrees, Associate Degrees to Transfer (ADT), seamless in-person and online learning experiences, and so on.

However, to do this, schools and systems have to reposition themselves in the narrative—becoming workforce development leaders within their communities.

Agile recruitment and retention marketing as a solution.

For schools needing to recruit and retain their learners (i.e., everyone) and those looking to grow their influence in their communities, marketing and outreach teams must embrace flexibility in their communications and marketing strategies.

This means throwing out the old playbooks and finding new methods of connecting and engaging. There are several ways that community colleges can begin repositioning themselves to meet the moment for today’s students.

Mind the Gap

Without the traditional on-campus experience on offer, many schools have lost their competitive advantage over their 2-year counterparts. In particular, students (and parents) unhappy with online learning experiences during the COVID-19 quarantine aren’t interested in spending hard-earned money on tuition for lackluster learning. However, there is an opportunity to position direct-to-career pathways as a much better option than a gap year without travel. Communicate how students can keep up their educational momentum while saving money.

Direct-to-Career Focus

Partnering with the biggest employers in their communities, community colleges, and career education providers offer learners a way to build their skills while directly meeting the workforce needs within their communities. This means having a better chance of finding family-sustaining jobs out of school and having the hands-on training needed to succeed in those jobs. A clear demonstration of ROI.

Bringing the Skills

Many community colleges offer career and technical training. This skills-based learning equips students to succeed in the “jobs of today and tomorrow.” Additionally, they offer the ability to reskill after losing a job, maintaining a competitive advantage for stranded or abandoned workers, and providing an alternative to younger students. The latter don’t see the value in the traditional education-to-career course and want a cost-effective route to an employable and sustainable future.

That said, anyone can take up a new position. Not everyone can execute it. The key is to reinforce that position, build trust with communities, and become known as educational leaders. Everything has to be about connection.

While connection can, and should, be approached from many directions, examples of digital connection tactics include:

Email Drip Campaigns

We know email is an efficient way to connect with all types of students. The opportunity lies in the data many colleges have collected but aren’t using. If used effectively (and ethically), schools can segment learner audiences by student type, motivations, or how they found you to deliver the most timely and relevant information.

Targeted Digital Advertising

No matter your budget, targeted ads are an excellent marketing solution that allows you to pinpoint your audiences and serve them the right message at the right time. During the outbreak, with nearly everyone at-home and online in some capacity, it’s more important than ever to sharpen your digital strategy. Learn your audiences’ interests, locations, and life stages to deliver the most tailored messages possible.

Landing page(s)

Your website is a one-stop resource for everything a person may need to know about your school and programs. However, landing pages are an excellent tool for targeting a specific student group that requires a tailored message, call-to-action (CTA), or follow-up process. A strategic, high-quality landing page can also collect relevant information and data to inform future marketing budgets, strategies, and business decisions.

While there is no roadmap to help community colleges pivot from where they were going to where their students need them to be now, there are many new opportunities for colleges willing to forge new paths. Ultimately it is up to each institution to decide how they want to meet the moment. Our prediction: the future belongs to the flexible and agile.

By Taylor Toledo-Kearns, Director, Education and Workforce