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Hanging onto the Demographic Cliff: How Community Colleges Can Climb

Jon Boeckenstedt’s essay, published by The Chronicle of Higher Education, takes a look at national trends created by the sharp drop in birth rates that started in 2007 and the potential consequences.  

Public high school graduations are expected to peak in 2025 at 3.5 million students, and then fall off.  

Since baby boomers first entered their college years, the confidence that was held in higher education has since been lost. Enrollment has been on the decline since before the pandemic, with no increase in the U.S. since the 2014-2015 school year. The drastic drop experienced by community colleges in 2020 and 2021 points to even bigger problems.   

Colleges and universities across the country are debating how this demographic cliff is affecting enrollment rates and how marketers in educational institutions should handle these implications.   

With the fall enrollment cycle upon us, the demographic cliff is real; but the impacts truly will not be understood for some time. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that many institutions are still relying on a “one size fits all” approach to marketing and branding.  

As marketers, we need to stay ahead of the shift as target audiences become increasingly diverse and there becomes a greater need to speak clearly to unique minority groups. Personalized messaging and an authentic voice have never been more important.  

The goal of attracting Black males to your schools and working hard to ensure they graduate is paramount. The same is important for the need to identify with and communicate directly to Hispanic students, which have demonstrated a dramatic exodus from higher education. 

As of 2022, white public high school graduates will no longer be the majority, dropping to about 42 percent of all U.S. graduates in 2036. 

While community colleges clearly face daunting challenges when forced to compete directly with better-funded four-year institutions for the same dwindling target audience, they also have incredible advantages. 

For the average American student today, community college is much more accessible and flexible to their lifestyle, offering a personalized approach to education. Additionally, there are endless funding opportunities for those looking for more financial support to get their degree.  

However, it’s not enough just to have these offerings in place. We must clearly communicate the unique selling points for our institutions so that students understand what they’ll be able to gain from their courses. We need to focus on the ability to quickly transition someone from the classroom into a job — or onto another four-year school for less money. 

The powerful workforce programs at most community colleges, and the accessibility of credentials to empower and enhance job opportunities for adults, are incredible advantages that must be marketed well with a unique voice and specialized marketing messages. 


About the Author

Tony Pearman

Tony began his advertising career with his first graphic design job before he even graduated VCU and has worked since then to refine his craft and learn from amazing mentors and clients. Founding AccessU in 1996, he built an award-winning agency that delivers exceptional client service, strategy, and creative work...

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