Ten strategies for strengthening community college enrollment and student success

Peter Bryant

June 26, 2014

For many two-year colleges, the era of “if you build it, they will come” is over. Community and technical colleges need to be as strategic and planning oriented as the four-year sector in attracting and retaining students. Nationally, enrollments at two-year public colleges have declined consistently on many campuses in recent years. At the same time, funding for two-year public institutions is becoming more tuition-driven and tied to student retention and completion. These and other trends have put historic pressure on community, junior, and technical colleges, requiring them to become more proactive and strategic in their recruitment and retention practices.

In light of this situation, many of the recruitment strategies and initiatives that have been common practice for four-year institutions are now being recognized as central to successful new student enrollment programs in the two-year sector. When applied, two-year institutions can expect not only increased enrollment, but also more efficient and effective enrollment operations, with special attention to filling under-enrolled and technical-oriented programs. In particular, the following ten recommendations are among those that have helped many two-year colleges begin to adapt to the new enrollment realities they face.

1) Invest in becoming a data-informed institution

If there is one element that separates the enrollment haves from the have-nots in higher education, it is the use of enrollment data for decision making. While many four-year institutions have become more proficient in using data for planning, there are many two-year institutions that are “data poor” or that lack a comprehensive, strategic approach to gathering and using data.

Make data gathering a priority at each stage of the enrollment process, including monitoring key indicators, along with a process for interpreting the data to make informed enrollment management decisions. It’s beyond the scope of this post to dive into all the types of data you should collect, or how to collect them, but email me if you would like to discuss recommendations.

2) Set enrollment goals that are based on reality

“Goal setting” is a phrase that is misunderstood and misapplied at many campuses. Institutions often set goals based on budgetary and revenue needs without grounding those goals in solid data analysis. This can lead to goals being too lofty—what the campus hopes will happen, with no regard to the likelihood of the outcome—or goals that are too low, which may be too easily achieved and not push the campus to achieve its full potential.

Set realistic, measurable enrollment and revenue goals based on expanded market research regarding program demand needs (see item five below) and the price sensitivity of your target audience. Also, set goals for new and returning students for one year, three years, and five years ahead.

3) Develop a strategic enrollment planning process

With increased competition and accountability, I have seen more two-year campuses turn to our longer term strategic enrollment planning initiative to increase their academic and fiscal health. Strategic enrollment planning goes well beyond typical annual plans to create a five- to ten-year road map that aligns your institutional mission and enrollment goals with your target markets.

4) Track progress toward your goals

You cannot have true goal setting without accurate goal tracking. The more you track, the more accurate your projections will be. For recruitment, track and monitor conversion rates at the prospect and inquiry stages, as pre-application is where the action is for two-year colleges. This approach can be particularly helpful for under-enrolled programs. Likewise, be sure to track student persistence and completion: term to term, year to year, and degree and program completion. This will allow you to set realistic goals for student retention as well.

5) Analyze your academic program demand

To optimize your enrollment, you have to stay current on the level of demand for your programs of study. A thorough academic program demand study will analyze student interest in your programs. It also should tell you how to increase capacity in your most popular programs and what you can do to better manage under-enrolled programs.

6) Award financial aid more strategically for recruitment and student retention

Award financial aid more strategically for recruitment and student retention

It is important to monitor and understand the influence financial aid has on new and returning students. The first step is to review any possible gaps between demonstrated student need and your existing fiscal resources. You want to ensure that your aid awards balance meeting student need and providing incentive to enroll, in such a way that your award dollars reach as many students as possible. The cost of a few hundred dollars to attend the institution can be as daunting for some students as the cost of several thousand dollars can be to others. Data from a net price calculator as well as from FAFSA applications can provide important market intelligence at key stages of the enrollment process.

7) Take an advanced, proactive approach to student retention

With two-year enrollments declining and many states adopting performance-based funding guidelines, it is more important than ever for two-year campuses to invest in student retention to help their students meet their academic goals. Identifying the needs of those students at risk at time of enrollment as well as knowing the “profile of the persister” are among important analytics to track with respect to knowing who can succeed and even excel. Review key data on your graduates including traits such as program of student, academic profile, and intent at the time of enrollment—keys that can provide insight into who persists and succeeds. Student motivational assessments such as the ones offered by Noel-Levitz can also provide systematic data for retention planning, early alert and intervention, and connecting students to the most appropriate campus resources and services. It is widely recognized that it is the mission of each campus to help as many students succeed as possible, and it is far more cost-effective to retain a current student than to recruit a new one to take the place of a withdrawing student.

8) Provide educational outcomes to prospective and current students

More than ever, students want to know if it is worth it to attend a particular institution and if they should continue with their educational goals. Make sure you can track and provide outcomes for an education at your campus. Be more proactive in promoting the value and results of successful completion of degrees, diplomas, or certificates at your college. This can attract students to your institution and inspire current students to complete their programs of study.

9) Increase collaboration and teamwork across campus departments

Recruitment and retention have many moving parts, and enrollment management goes much smoother when those parts work together. Break down silos and establish a more collaborative approach to attracting and retaining students, including marketing, recruiting, retention, financial aid, research, advising, counseling, deans, department heads, and faculty.

10) Review, review, review

Along with tracking data, it is crucial to review all processes and procedures systematically to identify any unnecessary processes, policies, or procedures that are barriers to enrollment. A staffing and resource study can help your campus develop a more efficient staffing structure that can provide more effective service to students as well.

Want to delve into more detail on these strategies?

Each community, junior, and technical college has distinctive enrollment issues, challenges, and opportunities to identify, attract, and retain students. Which of the above ten strategies could best serve as a foundation for meeting immediate and long-term enrollment and revenue objectives? When we conduct a campus-based enrollment opportunity assessment, we often identify two or three dozen strategies and opportunities for enrollment and student persistence. What additional strategies specific to your institution could contribute to enrollment success?

We will be conducting a number of sessions for two-year institutions at the upcoming National Conference on Student Recruitment, Marketing, and Retention. I am also happy to talk about any of these strategies in more detail, either by email or over the phone. I invite you to email me your questions or share your challenges, and I will discuss additional strategies that could make an impact at your institution.

Read More In:
Enrollment, Student Success