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Recruiting for community colleges requires effort

Marketing has become (and will continue to be) an important element of recruiting for community colleges. A recent study conducted by Simpson Scarborough showed that colleges and universities spend on average between $430 and $625 per enrolled student on marketing.

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. However, WCC spends much less than average per student on marketing – more like $130 per year. The jury is still out on the overall effectiveness of marketing and advertising. But one thing is clear: community colleges (including WCC) need more students.

While aiming at freshly minted high school graduates is easy (and probably gets some results), community colleges need to do more than recruit 18-year-olds if they want to fill their classrooms. Community colleges serve a lot of students, most of whom are adult learners.

Dual enrollment has flourished as a strategic part of the university admissions “arms race.” According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), in 2015, 70% of US high schools offered a dual enrollment option. And community colleges have benefited handsomely from the arrangement. It’s easy to see why community colleges pursue more dual enrollment arrangements.

But there is another prospective student demographic that deserves attention. Older workers, especially minorities, are being left behind in the workforce. A Colorado program announced last week, aims to change that. The REACH Initiative will partner with Colorado community colleges to recruit and support older students, especially those who are Black, Latinx or Native American.

Remembering older students when recruiting for community colleges

Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) will provide nearly $1M in funding to tap into employable talent among forgotten older workers. In part, the program aims to address inequities that the pandemic has exposed. Workers with college degrees tended not to lose their jobs during the pandemic. They had the resources (and skills) to transfer easily to remote work. Those workers who had to perform their work in person did not fare as well.

Many frontline workers either lost their jobs outright or lost hours. Others faced the opposite problem: overwork – and often overexposure to the coronavirus in their workplaces. Fewer than 3 in 10 adult workers in Michigan over the age of 25 have a four-year degree. That’s lower than the national average. About 4 in 10 Michigan adults over the age of 25 have a two-year degree. That’s still lower than the national average.

In a period when employers complain that they do not have enough workers to fill their open positions, it would behoove community colleges to recruit and enroll more independent adult workers. Unfortunately, community colleges often take this as a signal to spin up short-term training programs. In the end, this approach helps neither the employer nor the student. Recruiting these older workers into degree programs would better serve everyone. Older workers also offer another potential. Many of them have earned some college credits. By developing programs to help these workers complete a college degree, community colleges could address areas of need in the local workforce while helping older students achieve a meaningful academic credential.

Finding older students requires sensible marketing

I have said this in the past, but it is well past time for WCC to retire its fossilized “Employed” marketing campaign. After all, most people go to college to prepare themselves for employment. It is the natural/expected result. Why else would someone earn a college degree? And for someone who’s already been in the workforce, and who has probably been working very hard, this campaign is simply insulting.

Recently, I saw a new variation on this geriatric campaign, which frankly, is no better than “Employed.” “What do you call a WCC graduate? Doctor. Lawyer. Engineer.”

Except, not really. No one who graduates from WCC will be called “Doctor.” At least not without a lot of additional schooling elsewhere. Nor will anyone who graduates from WCC be practicing law or engineering anything anytime soon. The current campaign is actually worse than the last one because it is flat out misleading. WCC cannot confer a medical, law or engineering degree. So why advertise that?

There are plenty of effective approaches to recruiting for community colleges. For the sake of Washtenaw County, let’s hope the WCC Administration finds one.

Photo Credit: Newman University , via Flickr