Three keys to strategic enrollment planning for community colleges

Peter Bryant

July 23, 2013

Strategic enrollment planning for community colleges
Strategic enrollment planning can help two-year institutions strengthen their outreach and increase degree completion.

For many years, community college student recruitment consisted mostly of waiting for the community to come to the college. While community colleges have always done some marketing and outreach, they traditionally have not engaged in the kind of strategic enrollment planning practiced by more competitive four-year institutions.

The “if we build it, they will come” approach may have worked before, but it is far too passive for today’s pressurized and ever-changing higher education environment. Community colleges now face a more competitive, sophisticated, technology-driven marketplace; demographic challenges that will affect the pool of available students; performance-based funding initiatives that will require achieving significant benchmarks; and issues of cost and access. As if those were not enough, President Obama has also made community college enrollment a cornerstone of his future goal of increasing completion rates in the United States.

These challenges are driving a careful review of current marketing, recruiting, and retention practices with a focus on improving student access and success and the development of a strategic enrollment plan.

What does “strategic enrollment planning” really mean? Many institutions confuse long-term recruitment and retention planning with strategic enrollment planning. While this is a robust, multi-step process, here are three major elements that are essential to strategic enrollment planning at the community college level.

1) Implementing a data-informed process for enrollment planning and goal setting

Strategic enrollment planning is a data-informed process that aligns your institution’s fiscal, academic, and delivery resources with its changing environment to fulfill your institutional mission and ensure your long-term enrollment and fiscal health.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the phrase “data-informed process.” It is impossible for a plan to be strategic if it is not based on reliable, comprehensive data. For example, which of the following questions can you and your colleagues confidently answer right now?

  • Which academic areas do prospective students in your primary and secondary markets want to study? How much do they value your academic offerings?
  • Which institutions are your main competitors? How do students perceive them in terms of value and quality? How do you compare to other two-year campuses in your market as well as four-year institutions?
  • How does your current institutional mission align with your current market environment? Are you meeting the needs of the communities which you serve?

Answers to these types of questions allow you to become more strategic about your student recruitment, marketing, and campus image. You can use this data to assess your market position, take the steps to meet the academic needs of prospective students, and be more proactive and persuasive in getting students to choose your community college over other options.

2) Strategic enrollment planning must include a comprehensive student retention plan

The open nature of community college enrollment makes student retention planning critical. Think of the variety of students your college serves: traditional high school graduates, adult learners, students seeking associate’s degrees, students in professional training or certification programs, continuing education students, online learners. Many are first-generation college students, many have work and/or family obligations in addition to their studies, and many need to be connected to appropriate academic support services to persist.

As with recruitment, your retention plans need to be informed by data. Student satisfaction assessment data, for example, can pinpoint challenges that hinder student persistence and the overall student experience. (This is especially true when these satisfaction assessments also survey student priorities, as the Noel-Levitz instruments do.) Likewise, it’s imperative to have assessment and intervention initiatives in your retention plan, so you can intervene with students before they decide to leave school (this is the foundation for our early-alert student success assessments). These types of assessments allow you to understand where to focus your limited retention resources most effectively, so that you have the greatest impact on student success.

3) Strategic enrollment planning must include ways to benchmark and track progress

The data-informed nature of strategic enrollment planning is a cyclical process. The planning process relies on data, and then data are tracked to assess progress toward the goals of the plan.

For community colleges in particular, this aspect of strategic enrollment planning provides a number of key benefits, such as:

  • A method for meeting performance-based funding (PBF) initiatives. Tracking progress highlights the ways your institution needs to adjust to meet PBF benchmarks, while also providing data for showing how you’ve met those goals.
  • Cost-benefit and return-on-investment analyses for student recruitment and retention initiatives. Perhaps no other sector in higher education has to do more with fewer resources than community colleges. Simply put, your campus has to prioritize strategies that will have the greatest impact on student enrollment and success.
  • Student outcomes that will demonstrate the value of an education from your campus.

Strategic enrollment planning enables you to build your enrollment by design, not by chance

Of course, these three elements are just the beginning of the conversation about strategic enrollment planning. We could write an entire book on the subject (and we have!). Hopefully, however, I have shown a few of the major benefits and strategies for making community college enrollment more strategic, efficient, and beneficial to your institution as well as the students you serve. Taking this effective approach to strategic enrollment planning can move your campus from casting its educational net widely for any students it can get to a more proactive approach of recruiting students and guiding them toward completion of their educational goals.

Would you like to discuss these strategies in depth? Talk about specific challenges and goals? Please e-mail me with your comments and concerns. I will be glad to answer them and, if you like, we can also discuss conducting a campus visit to assess your situation in greater detail.

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