“Understanding the Community College Marketing Context: Insights from The Million Dollar Community College Challenge” (Lumina Foundation, 2022), examined a variety of issues relevant to the marketing of credential programs. The Lumina report notes that community colleges already employ many strategies to market themselves to potential students and the communities they serve. Branding was a key strategy for more than half of the applicants to the Lumina challenge proposal, although many described it as a recent investment or a plan for the future.
Marketing focused on traditional activities such as direct mail, email, website, TV and radio (both direct and streaming), and bus wrapping. Direct outreach included print materials, media/name recognition, tours, and campus events. A few themes emerged among institutions, including: digital marketing and videography; direct outreach to students through apps, chatbots, and individual contact; investments in campus or extensions through signage, hubs, and mobile services; and increased perception and word-of-mouth.
As a whole, the applicant institutions displayed significant capacity and experience in running specific campaigns to promote the college or specific programs. The institutions also understand that community connections are critical in recruiting adult students. Many cited the importance of embedding navigators in workforce centers or other community groups, creating connections and partnerships with employers, and recruiting students at community events.
It was also clear that marketing is no longer just about enrolling students. Most applicants highlighted their role of supporting students from the time they enter the institution until they complete their programs. Marketing teams are critical partners as institutions seek to transform themselves in ways that better serve adult students. They’re also vital to the success of initiatives related to advising and navigation, guided pathways, meeting students’ basic needs, competency-based education, connecting credit and non-credit courses, and improving partnerships with industry.
Institutions appeared to have a clear understanding of who their prospective adult students were and how to appeal to them. The prevalent messages community colleges used showed a comprehensive understanding of the many dynamics at play for adult learners. Messaging has four key components: who you are, what we offer, how we relate to you, and what it means for you.
One of the important recommendations for the Million Dollar Challenge is that colleges must transform to meet student needs. As the report notes on Page 14: “marketing and branding can’t focus solely on reaching learners. Promises to adult students must be followed by systems, structures, and supports that ensure adult students succeed at scale.”