The New Student Experience at a Community College

The enrollment data for community colleges is positive for the first time in a long time, with an overall enrollment increase of 2.1% between spring 2022 and spring 2023, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Despite this recent trend reversal, community colleges can’t ignore the 37% decline (nearly 2.6 million students) experienced between 2010 and 2022. This rapid enrollment cliff prompted many community colleges to make some much-needed adjustments to improve the student experience and get back into growth mode. 

By design, community colleges are broad-access systems that make higher education more accessible, affordable, and achievable for the average learner. This article will discuss how many community colleges are rising to the challenge and making strides toward a more equitable, attainable experience for modern students. 

4 Areas Where Community Colleges Are Driving Change

In the digital age, enrolling students seems more competitive than ever. Prospective students have more options to choose from, including bootcamps and online programs; student demographics have shifted; and the cost of education continues to rise. Still, the enrollment numbers from the last few years are only part of the story. Many community colleges are working hard to change the narrative through key adjustments to the student experience.

1. Improving the Onboarding Process

With colleges, universities, and alternative education programs in a race for the attention of prospective students, enrollment teams need to ensure they’re making a memorable impression on the students they do get in front of. Starting the enrollment journey with an instant connection is essential to positive enrollment outcomes. However, community colleges have traditionally struggled to make that initial connection that would enable them to guide prospective students through the enrollment process.

Unfortunately, many prospective community college students are forced to act as their own academic advisors by either exploring websites and course catalogs that aren’t user friendly or seeking advice from family and friends, according to the Community College Research Center (CCRC). Students are often expected to answer the following questions entirely on their own: 

  • What program is right for me based on my career ambitions? 
  • What courses do I need to complete in order to graduate or transfer? 
  • When/where/how are those courses offered? 
  • How can I finance my education? 
  • How do I apply and register for the upcoming term? 
  • What are the deadlines? 
  • How do I purchase my books? 

This self-serve process can be frustrating for students, and leaves community colleges vulnerable to losing students to competitors with smoother student journeys. 

But a growing number of community colleges are recognizing that the traditional student journey needs to be improved, according to a 2020 analysis published by the CCRC. They’re taking the opportunity to refresh their initial communications and beef up their enrollment guidance, realizing that prospective students are hungry for things like straightforward program maps, hands-on financial advising, and fewer unnecessary classes. These colleges are making significant improvements to their website navigation and onboarding experiences to reduce student confusion and empower student decision-making. 

Here are some tactics community colleges are using to update their onboarding process and provide prospective students with as much upfront support as possible:

Scale the Advising Experience With Digital Support

Community colleges are committing to a personalized digital experience that simulates an advising session. Advising is arguably the most important step in the enrollment process, as it is usually the digital student’s first personal interaction with the college. The advising model is designed to help students find the right program, successfully complete the admissions process, register for classes, and find answers to specific questions. 

Community colleges are realizing that many advisory interactions can be digitized to improve the student experience and allow their advisors to have fewer but more meaningful conversations with prospective students. 

Provide a Clear Path to the Next Term

This does not mean adding a bunch of text to the website that outlines everything a student must do prior to the first term. This means building a system that allows students to see the progress they are making toward achieving their educational goals. Think of this as a digital checklist that only reveals the next step, rather than an overwhelming summary of steps. 

The same digital experience that was outlined above can be used to help students stay on track after each admissions milestone, such as career exploration, articulation/transfer options, transcript request, application completion, FAFSA completion, and more. 

Provide Support as Needed

If the first two steps are followed, students will stay informed about the process and feel accomplished as they progress. Inevitably, some students will get stuck and will seek support from an experienced advisor. Having a tool that allows them to schedule a videoconference meeting with an advisor, faculty member, or member of the registrar’s office is a low-cost and powerful strategy to help students stay the course. 

Remember, if the right onboarding technology is put in place, students will have fewer surface-level questions, which leaves room for advisors to have more meaningful live conversations with prospective students. 

2. Supporting Students With Transferability

A majority (80%) of students who enroll in community colleges intend to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2021 study from the CCRC. However, only 31% of those students transfer to four-year programs, and just 14% earn a bachelor’s degree. Overall transfer rates declined by 9.7% between 2020 and 2022, according to the September 2022 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report on transfer students

These statistics indicate that community colleges need to take a closer look at how students are supported as they move from community college to a four-year university to increase transfer rates and improve the student journey. Students who are allowed to transfer their credits, often through completion of a two-year degree or certificate, are 16% more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who don’t transfer credits, according to an additional CCRC study

Community college students have often had trouble finding information on what credits will transfer from community colleges to public universities. According to the Government Accountability Office, students who transfer between public schools lose an average of 37% of their credits. However, personalized advisement from transfer advisors can increase transfer rates, according to a study published in Community College Review. 

Here are a few strategies community colleges can deploy to assist prospective students in successfully transferring schools: 

Build Strong 2+2 Programs

Students can earn a two-year associate degree at a community college and then transfer to a four-year program with zero unproductive credits (credits that will not transfer) through what are known as 2+2 programs. Students enter community college with a crystal clear path to a bachelor’s degree and are not worried or in the dark about losing credits during the transfer process. Whether the second half of the courses are taken on campus or online, the seamless transition process ensures that students do not waste time or money. 

One example of a strong 2+2 program exists at Northern Virginia Community College through the Advance program, where students are offered a direct and clear path to a bachelor’s at nearby George Mason University. Students receive dual admission at both schools and can choose from over 80 different program offerings. 

Offer Guided Pathways

Building a specific and preferred course sequence for students to follow has proven to be beneficial for many community colleges. If academic leaders take the time to build outlined combinations and progressions, students will register with confidence and feel secure in their path to success. 

The TCC2FSU Pathways program at Tallahassee Community College is a great example of a successful program with a wide range of viable and clear tracks for students looking to transfer after two years. 

3. Increasing Flexibility for Work-School-Life Balance

For years, the majority of nontraditional learners have been individuals who work full time. About 63% of adult learners work at least one job, according to These students face challenges that include balancing work and school, paying for school expenses, and meeting the demands of family and friends, according to a 2019 survey by RISC, highlighting the need for flexibility in the student journey. 

Additionally, when high school graduates have the opportunity to make money in unskilled jobs, many would rather focus on working full time than trying to go back to school while only working part time. Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse, has noted the increased compensation for low-skilled jobs and a healthy labor market when discussing reasons for downward enrollment trends in recent years.  

To address the difficult decisions prospective students face as they try to maintain a work-school-life balance, community colleges can make getting an education more attractive with a few supportive initiatives:

Update Course Offerings

Offering online programs should be a big priority for community colleges. Today’s digital students need scheduling and modality options, and asynchronous engagement. In-person classes require rigidity in accommodating professors and other students’ schedules. When courses are offered online, students can listen to lectures when it’s most convenient for them. In some cases, this could be while nursing their child at home or on their commute to work. 

Some schools also offer “minimesters,” which are shortened semesters that lend a hand to busy working student lifestyles. Minimesters provide opportunities for shorter commitment periods, making it easier to balance schedules. 

Increase Support for Single Parents

In 2020, Delgado Community College in New Orleans launched its SMART (Single Mothers Accessing Resources Timely) program, which allows single mothers to earn a living wage while attending school. The program empowers single mothers to advance in their education and their career through a combination of ”personalized learning, career guidance, and holistic support.” 

Delgado Community College paid attention to the needs of its community and designed a human-centered program that sets single moms (26% of their school population) up for success beyond their academic agendas. Not only is the school providing resources like transportation assistance, child care vouchers, and group support, but it’s paying close attention to the challenges that school presents for working parents — something every community college can learn from.  

Provide Child Care Options

Beyond providing programming that allows single parents to work and go to school at the same time, community colleges also could provide child care options for students with children. Oftentimes, the financial sacrifice of paying for child care services leaves parents wondering if community college is a worthwhile endeavor. If a full-service child care facility isn’t an option, colleges can consider taking a page out of Delgado’s book and offering child care vouchers. 

4. Providing Increased Financial Assistance

Adult learners are more likely to make financially driven decisions than recent high school graduates. Oftentimes, going to college is one of the largest investments prospective students will make (adult learner or not). In fact, an engagement email campaign for an Archer Education partner found that 35% of students didn’t enroll for financial reasons. 

Community colleges have always been a lower-cost solution for prospective students, but information about costs and financial assistance isn’t always readily available or made clear to prospective students. Community colleges can help by doing the following:

Educate Prospective Students About Financial Aid Options

Eighty-five percent of adult-eligible, free college tuition programs are offered at the community college level, according to the American Institutes for Research. Each of these programs provides full tuition for a certificate or degree, and not all of them require prospective students to prove financial need. 

If none of these programs is available to a community college’s prospective students, alternative options may be. First-dollar tuition programs are unique to community colleges and can supplement many other grants and funding opportunities. First-dollar tuition programs do not consider other funding in their decision-making process, and they cover a wide variety of costs including child care and transportation costs. For example, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship grants New Mexico residents the ability to earn a degree or certificate, part time or full time, with full tuition and fees paid for. 

In contrast, most universities have last-dollar tuition programs that require students to first utilize available public funding and then they can be awarded funds based on their eligibility. Last-dollar programs do not cover additional costs like child care and transportation. 

Highlight Cost Savings

Community colleges can educate prospective students on how much they can save by enrolling in a community college instead of a four-year university. Community college cost in-state students an average of $3,860 in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the College Board. That’s around $7,000 less than a four-year public university cost in-state students that year.

Reimagine the Community College Enrollment Process

Quite a few community colleges are ahead of their time, and, thanks to them, we’re seeing positive growth for community college enrollment. Opportunities for automation, easier transfer processes, flexibility, and financial assistance will allow community colleges to continue to increase enrollment. These are action items that all community colleges can consider implementing, to get more students enrolling in their programs and walking across the stage to accept their diplomas. 

Do not underestimate the power of evaluating ongoing trends and prioritizing the prospective students in your direct community. Here at Archer Education, we partner with accredited universities to help higher ed leaders and marketers accelerate online learning growth and enrollment. We believe that education is the great equalizer in our society, and we strive to help institutions make education more accessible for all modern learners. 

We offer a variety of tech-enabled marketing, enrollment, and retention services, and our Onward team helps higher ed institutions deliver a suite of enhanced, personalized digital student experiences and multichannel nurturing strategies for every stage of the journey. If you’d like to learn more, contact our team and explore our offerings today.