Community college enrollment declines are not merely cyclical
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, community colleges have faced five consecutive years of enrollment declines. Across the sector, fall headcount has declined by 16% since 2010. The resulting loss of tuition revenue—coupled with volatility in state funding—has left many college leaders struggling to balance their budgets.
Community college leaders are familiar with the cyclical nature of enrollments: every time the job market recovers, students leave college to return to work. Yet the current enrollment decline is not merely cyclical—it’s exacerbated by growing competition across higher education. As demographic growth stagnates in many parts of the country, four-year universities are enhancing their marketing practices and going head-to-head with community colleges for prospective students.
Toolkit: Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points
Market share slipping as enrollment competition escalates
To understand the impact of heightened enrollment competition, community college leaders need to look no further than their market share. The graph below illustrates the percentage of undergraduates enrolled in the community college sector over time. Until 2002, this figure hovered between 40-44%, peaking during recessions and declining modestly in between.
Since 2002, however, community college market share has declined almost every year regardless of economic trends. Even when the sector was serving a large influx of dislocated workers during the Great Recession, its market share was barely growing. By 2013, it had fallen to 38%—the lowest it’s been in over three decades.
Share of Total Enrollments in Decline Since 2002
Percentage of U.S. Undergraduates Enrolled in Two-Year Sector, 1980-2013
Initially, community colleges lost market share to for-profit institutions. Over a decade ago, these institutions introduced multi-million dollar advertising budgets and private sector recruitment practices into higher education. Although many of these for-profits are now folding in the face of governmental regulation, they’ve made an irreversible impact on college marketing. In recent years, more and more not-for-profit universities have similarly enhanced their marketing strategies, and these market-driven universities represent a new source of competition for community colleges today.
Seeking scalable strategies to compete for prospective students
Broadly speaking, community college leaders have two options to reverse enrollment declines. First, they can continue to grow the market for higher education by expanding college access. Second, they can recapture lost market share by competing with universities for prospective students.
This second approach requires that community colleges replace their traditionally hands-off approach to recruitment with a systematic prospect management strategy. In particular, college staff must identify prospective students early in their decision process and engage them through their preferred—and largely digital—communication channels. View our latest infographic for eight scalable marketing and recruiting strategies that allow colleges to engage today’s prospects.
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Increasing enrollment in today’s community colleges