A Blueprint for Enrollment Growth and Sustainability

Higher education enrollment has been declining for several years, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But not all colleges and universities are seeing declines. 

In fact, some schools have experienced record growth over the last five years, and no higher education institutions are better positioned for continued growth in the next decade than community colleges. 

Community colleges play a crucial role in providing an accessible and affordable education to diverse student populations. But the typical onboarding process for new students is dated — hindered by a lack of community, connection, and clear information that makes the experience feel inefficient and impersonal to students. 

The good news? There’s a relatively simple three-step blueprint to grow community college enrollment: 

  1. Learn from your peers (i.e., postsecondary institutions that are growing). 
  2. Garner a better understanding of the modern student. 
  3. Utilize technology to create a more personalized experience. 

Let’s take a closer look at each step of the blueprint. 

Step 1: Learn From Your Peers 

Community colleges looking to increase student enrollment and retention can explore the Community College Research Center’s comprehensive framework for improving student onboarding. Based on an examination of current onboarding practices, the CCRC’s framework is focused on streamlining processes and enhancing student support mechanisms. 

Community college admissions offices also can learn several valuable lessons from their peers that are experiencing strong growth — including two-year, four-year, and alternative credentialing institutions — regarding marketing strategies, student engagement tactics, and operational efficiency. 

Key areas where community colleges can draw insights from schools that are experiencing growth year over year include the following: 

Targeted Marketing Strategies              

Colleges in growth mode often excel at targeting specific demographic groups and tailoring their marketing messages to appeal to the needs and interests of potential students in those groups. Community colleges can benefit from adopting similar targeted marketing strategies to reach underserved populations, adult learners, and modern students who may not consider traditional, four-year institutions. 

Emphasis on Student Support 

Growing institutions prioritize comprehensive student support services that help learners succeed academically and professionally. Community colleges can enhance their admissions process by emphasizing the availability of services such as academic advising, tutoring, career counseling, and financial aid assistance. Not only does this commitment lead to more applications, it can also improve student retention rates.

Employer Partnerships and Career Placement Services 

One of the most powerful tools to increase community college enrollment is frequent collaboration with employers to develop industry-aligned curricula, offer internships, and facilitate job placement opportunities for graduates. Students want career-driven educational programs, and establishing partnerships with local businesses, industries, and workforce development organizations can serve as a major selling point for your institution. 

Continuous Improvement and Adaptation 

Community college admissions teams should remain agile and responsive to market demands, constantly refining their programs and services to meet the evolving needs of students and current industry trends. The best way to do that is through feedback loops — soliciting input from students, alumni, and stakeholders to identify areas for enhancement and innovation in your admissions processes. 

Step 2: Understand the Modern Student

The modern student population has grown beyond the traditional 18- to 22-year-olds who attend school full time Monday through Friday. High-growth institutions are gathering insights into who the modern student is and adjusting their programs accordingly. Community college enrollment teams can better meet the needs of today’s students by increasing the accessibility of their programs, embracing technology, fostering engagement with prospective and current students, and promoting inclusivity. 

Strategies that schools can implement include the following: 

Offer Flexible Learning Options 

Modern students often have diverse commitments and responsibilities outside of their academic studies. Community colleges can offer flexible learning options such as online courses, evening and weekend classes, and hybrid learning formats to accommodate the needs of working adults, parents, and other nontraditional students. 

Provide Accessible Enrollment Choices 

Adding rolling admissions, multiple start dates throughout the year, and accelerated degree programs are powerful ways to increase community college enrollment. When students can start their educational journey at convenient times and progress at their own pace, they’re much more likely to choose your institution over a competitor with more stringent requirements. 

Promote Inclusivity and Diversity 

Everyone wants to feel valued, respected, and represented in the spaces they occupy, and the community college classroom is no different. By communicating messages of diversity, equity, and inclusion, you can create a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds. You can also offer cultural competency training for staff, provide resources for underrepresented populations, and organize diversity-focused events and programming. 

Use Modern Student Engagement Methods 

Modern students are accustomed to using digital platforms for communication, learning, and social interaction. Community colleges can embrace this familiarity by using social media networks, mobile apps, and virtual collaboration tools to engage students, share information, and provide support resources. 

Step 3: Utilize Technology for Onboarding Processes 

Data analytics tools can provide community college enrollment teams with valuable insights into prospective students’ behaviors, allowing them to identify patterns and areas for improvement in their onboarding processes. For example, analytics dashboards can track their pre-application activities, application completion rates, enrollment funnel progression, and dropout points, allowing administrators to pinpoint bottlenecks and implement targeted interventions. 

Institutions are also adopting new technology tools such as virtual campus tours and personalized communication systems to enhance their students’ enrollment experience.

Community colleges can refine and improve their enrollment procedures with tech at the forefront in the following ways: 

Improve Technology Solutions 

Colleges that experience growth leverage technology to streamline their pre-application admissions processes, enhance their communications with prospective students, and improve the students’ overall experience. Community colleges can adopt innovative tools such as pre-application and post-application solutions, virtual campus tours, and mobile-friendly websites that make the admissions process more efficient and user-friendly. 

Make Use of Data Analytics 

Data analytics tools can help community college admissions teams analyze students’ demographics, behaviors, and performance metrics. Collecting and analyzing data from existing students and prospective students (via those pre- and post-application onboarding solutions) empowers community colleges with the information they need to dramatically improve the entire experience for students. The key is finding vendors and partners who can aggregate the data in a way that keeps it simple. More data is not the answer. Better data is. 

Employ Automated Communication 

Effective communication is critical to keeping students engaged and informed throughout the enrollment process. However, manual communication methods, such as phone calls and emails, can be time-consuming and inefficient. Automated communication systems can help boost community college enrollment by keeping prospective students engaged via regular text messages, emails, or mobile apps that provide reminders, updates, and deadlines. These systems can also track students’ responses and interactions, allowing for more targeted personalized communication. 

Navigating the enrollment process can be overwhelming for many prospective students, especially those who are first-generation students or come from underrepresented backgrounds. Technology can play a crucial role in providing personalized guidance and support to help students navigate the various steps involved in enrolling. Chatbots and virtual advisors can be integrated into college websites to provide instant assistance and answer commonly asked questions. These tools can also offer personalized recommendations based on students’ individual needs and circumstances.

Community College Enrollment: Poised for Growth 

While higher education enrollment as a whole has faced challenges in recent years, community colleges are uniquely positioned for growth. Understanding the modern student and utilizing technology effectively are essential steps in this endeavor. By learning from their successful peers, community colleges can implement targeted marketing strategies, enhance their student support services, forge partnerships with employers, and embrace a culture of continuous improvement. 

Furthermore, recognizing and meeting the diverse needs and preferences of modern students, including by offering flexible learning options and promoting inclusivity, is crucial for fostering student engagement and success. Leveraging technology to streamline onboarding processes, provide personalized guidance, and automate communications can greatly enhance the onboarding experience for students. 

Archer Education has unparalleled expertise in the current higher education landscape and how to help our partners attract and retain students, including through Onward, our personalized digital student experiences platform. Click here to request more information about Archer’s full-funnel engagement strategies.

Subscribe to the Higher Ed Marketing Journal: