Promoting a Community College Network Through a Pandemic

Over the past two years, we’ve witnessed many colleges and university systems put procedures in place to keep campuses safe and open for all. Some students were back learning in classrooms and returning to some semblance of normalcy, while others continued their learning online. The college landscape as a whole was flipped on its head, and truth be told, it has not returned to pre-pandemic “normalcy.” 

Even though the majority of mask mandates have been lifted, the impact of the pandemic has left students constantly questioning what’s next. The never-ending changes have stripped these students of a traditional secondary education experience, causing many to reevaluate what higher education means and how the system works for them. 

Pandemic Changes to the College Landscape and the Associated Challenges

For many colleges and universities, the effects of COVID have been reflected in enrollment patterns, which are down significantly across the board in the U.S. when compared to pre-pandemic numbers: 

  • Nationally, enrollment at community colleges is down ~22% since the start of the COVID pandemic.
  • National Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates have dropped more than 10%. 
  • Renewals among enrolled students eligible for Pell Grants, a proxy for low income status, are down by more than 15%. 

This drop in enrollment rates has forced administrators and marketers to examine why this is happening and how they can better serve underserved students and their families. 

Understanding Student Pain Points to Alter Marketing Strategies

The decrease in FAFSA applications and Pell Grants has raised concerns that fewer lower income families are aspiring to higher education for their high school graduates, which, in turn, is causing students to lose interest in pursuing college. At the same time, there is concern that many families are not taking advantage of the financial aid they already qualify for and missing out on affordable tuition, which leads to a decline in application and admission rates. So, if all of these students are no longer on the path to secondary education, then what are they doing? 

Our Higher Education experts believe more recent high school graduates are forgoing higher education and instead seeking out entry level jobs where they can make money right away and avoid incurring debt. 

As the U.S. continues to feel the ever-increasing pressure of the labor shortage, employers have raised wages, especially for entry level positions, to entice and incentivize prospective employees. Employers are also hiring people as soon as they graduate from high school and training them on the job. For many students, especially those from low income backgrounds who have limited access to financial support, the decision to start working right away and avoid student debt is close to a “no-brainer.” 

So what have Maine’s community colleges been doing to combat this ongoing problem and encourage students to pursue their higher education dreams for the long-term gain? Let’s take a closer look.

Promoting the Community College Network Through a Pandemic

While looking at the pain points high school students are facing, the Maine Community College System worked with both Ethos’ and VONT’s team of higher education marketing experts to address the pain points head-on by focusing on key programs, including the new Tuition Free College program, as well as creating a messaging platform and complementary campaign that meets students where they are and acknowledges their current struggles to get them in the door. Those tactics include:

Streamlined Brand Messaging 

Prior to the creation of the Maine Community College System, each of the seven individual colleges was working and operating entirely on its own when it came to marketing needs. Ethos’ job was to strengthen the value proposition of attending community colleges in Maine and to build brand awareness for the system as a whole with key audiences. It was understood that each college’s unique attributes should remain a focal point in their individual marketing campaigns (e.g., their brand, value-add proposition, mascot, course offerings, etc.), so Ethos created a plan to strengthen the position, streamline messaging, and address pain points in an overarching brand for all of Maine’s community colleges. This would help to bolster the efforts of each community college. 

Enter Maine’s Community College System: one brand that represented and communicated needs for all seven of Maine’s community colleges. Built on three pillars—affordability, flexibility, and support—the Maine Community College System’s marketing strategy focuses on centralized messaging that communicates the value of attending a Maine community college, while still allowing each college to shine on its own. 

Workforce Development Training

Although traditional student enrollment has been down for community colleges throughout Maine, enrollment in short-term workforce training programs has been up by 70%. This statistic presented an opportunity for the Maine Community College System. The system shifted to prioritize short-term workforce training programs that allow for businesses and workforce specialists to partner with the Maine Community College System and the Harold Alfond Center for the Advancement of Maine’s Workforce. Their goal? To train current and prospective employees, and those looking to diversify their skills for jobs needed in Maine. 

The Maine Community College System recognized that even with a decline in traditional student enrollment, there are still opportunities for growth.

Partnering with Employers

As part of Workforce Development Training, the Maine Community College System has partnered with local Maine employers who have a high demand for skills and labor within their field. This helps the local community college to promote and fill their programs and to establish relationships with, and create customized training for, local employers. For example, the Maine Community College System has partnered with a local hospital, Maine Medical Center, to help their nurses gain access to an education and build on their qualifications. This enables nurses to obtain a degree and continue to be employed in the field. Each individual community college has different employer partners based on their location in Maine.  

Emotional Testimonials

The Maine Community College System has also been sharing student success stories to inspire other people to enroll at a Maine community college. By sharing these stories of hardship, perseverance, and success, it allows others to know they are not alone, that it has and can be done, and that they have the option to choose a path to a better future. These stories have been amplified by the system’s marketing efforts, reminding people that they, too, can achieve a better job, a better future, and a better life. 

Free College Initiative 

The Ethos and VONT teams have been assisting the Maine Community College System with a bold new Free College Initiative. A new supplemental budget signed by Governor Janet Mills on April 20th includes $20 million to cover tuition free community college for recent high school graduates who have suffered so much during the pandemic. Although this funding is a one-time allocation that will only cover students through 2025, our higher ed experts are optimistic that the program will work well to help inspire others to enroll. Our team assisted the system with the brand messaging, website development, and digital, social, and traditional advertising. 

The Bottom Line: Higher Ed Has Changed, So Marketing Efforts Have to Follow Suit

As student enrollment patterns continue to shift, the Maine Community College System has prioritized getting a better understanding of current and prospective student challenges and their associated decision-making processes in this new landscape. 

As other community colleges and higher education systems navigate these challenges in their own way, our advice is to stay on top of it, follow the situation closely, and be attentive to current and prospective students’ needs and experiences through this time. 

Looking to improve enrollment for your community college? Talk to one of our Higher Education marketing experts today to see how Ethos|VONT can help your strategy. 

About Ethos

Ethos is a multiplatform branding agency that develops and executes integrated marketing campaigns across multiple channels for companies inside and outside of Maine. At Ethos, we believe that the most effective way to set a company’s marketing course is by finding its core truth – its “ethos.” We know that once we discover and communicate that core truth, we can truly make a difference for each client’s unique marketing and business objectives. With Ethos, you get more than a marketing agency. You get a long-term partner whose goals are your goals. Learn more about the Ethos approach and the work we’ve done for our clients. Want to have a conversation about your brand’s core truth? Contact us!

Morgan Houk
Written By

Morgan Houk

PR/Social Media Coordinator