by Daniel Ramirez
South Texas College
We all know that in today’s higher education landscape, community colleges face new and unique challenges, many of which we have never encountered. Our mission to attract new students and retain those currently enrolled has become more difficult due to the pandemic. In times such as these, it’s natural to “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” With so many uncertainties, it’s hard to forecast what the future holds. One thing that is for certain is that we have a unique opportunity to attract new students whose higher education options have been impacted by COVID-19. For example:
- Recent high school graduates who in past years would focus only on enrolling in four-year colleges.
- Students contemplating not returning to costly four-year colleges that now offer only online or hybrid classes
- Students who are opting for a gap year, and might be interested in a certificate program
- The growing population of recently unemployed or underemployed workers who, due to the pandemic, need to build new skills
A popular marketing adage says, “When times are good you should advertise. When times are bad you must advertise.” Along this same line, I’d like to offer an argument that now is not the time to reduce marketing budgets but instead amp up and strategically pivot. The student journey is complex, with a study by Google highlighting that over 51% of prospective students spend over a year researching higher education options. (Source: “Unpacking the Student Decision Journey in Higher Education”, Google Ipsos Research, February 2017) It’s a long journey with twists and turns that lead prospective students to their eventual decision. Reducing marketing efforts limits a college’s ability to engage prospective students at key touch-points where they are most influenceable. This, in turn, handicaps efforts to obtain leads and support enrollment growth.
Reducing marketing efforts also places community colleges at risk of losing “share of mind” with prospective students. Our competitors are not likely to be standing still in this period. They are eyeing an opportunity to encroach upon our prospective student pipeline and drive students away from us and towards them. Inevitably there will be some institutions that reduce their advertising spends. This presents an opportunity for community colleges to increase their awareness amongst prospective students and gain additional ground over these competitors.
This pandemic is creating new behavioral patterns for our students, both current and prospective. Community college needs to consider how we can adjust to the future. We want students to see the light at the end of the tunnel and be prepared for when things do turn around. We have an opportunity to project the image of stability during these challenging times. While many things have changed, community colleges are still here to support and help students succeed.
Daniel Ramirez is the director of public relations and marketing at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas. He’s received more than 50 marketing awards for his work in higher education, including NCMPR’s 2014 District 4 Communicator of the Year.