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3 lessons from fall 2020 and what they mean for future community college enrollments

November 16, 2020

Many community college leaders’ worst enrollment fears were realized this fall, as the sector experienced widespread declines. EAB addressed this and more in a series of working groups with over 60 participants, discussing how to adapt Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) efforts to meet this new challenge. These conversations highlighted the heightened competition caused by the pandemic. Economic issues, remote learning challenges, and lost access for high school students mean a shrinking pool of prospects who are increasingly choosing between four-year, for-profit, and even fellow system community college competitors.

These working groups elevated the following three insights to meet the pandemic enrollment challenges:

Your students may be digital natives, but they still struggle in your virtual space

Students (and often faculty) have difficulty with remote learning platforms, the Learning Management System (LMS), and the nuances between hybrid learning modalities. In this virtual environment, students need support navigating these platforms and modalities, consistency from faculty and administration, as well as the removal of unnecessary barriers. Middlesex Community College proactively addresses student concerns by embedding student ambassadors in their LMS to help answer questions and support successful online learning. These “Blackboard Ambassadors” attend virtual classes early in the semester, participate in virtual discussion boards, and provide personal contact details so they can assist with any problems that occur outside of class.

View our short webinar Student Success in Summer and Beyond to learn about strategies like how to prepare students to learn online and substantially decrease student requests.

Your staffer calling for snail mail finally has their day

community college enrollment 2020

Many enrollment teams are struggling to reach their attendance goals for virtual events and to reach students through online marketing efforts. Working group participants noted they needed all their tools to achieve success—text message, phone calls, social media campaigns and, most importantly, tailoring their message to different target audiences. However, effectively getting their message out has also required rethinking the golden rules of engagement. With Americans spending more time at home, many colleges are finding students more receptive to ‘old school’ forms of engagement. For example, when the pandemic began, colleges saw increased response rates from phone campaigns and snail mail pamphlets. And Pueblo Community College shared that they experienced increased response rates by moving their call campaigns to evenings, Fridays, and Saturdays. These shifting engagement trends are requiring community colleges across the country to rethink their pandemic communication strategy.

See our Prospect Communication Plan Toolkit to audit your current communication practices and get advice on tools like text messaging.

At this moment, high school students provide the greatest opportunity to recoup enrollment losses


Estimated decline in first-time enrollments among 18-20-year-olds represents a major hit to many community colleges’ most reliable student market
Estimated decline in first-time enrollments among 18-20-year-olds represents a major hit to many community colleges’ most reliable student market

During periods of economic recession, often adults are the focus of recruitment efforts because their enrollment patterns have historically been countercyclical. In 2020, however, that hasn’t been the case, and in fact we’ve seen steep declines in adult enrollment. While institutions should continue to develop differentiated recruitment for this market, a majority of our working group participants told us their primary focus was on a different group: high school students who have opted out of college entirely because of the pandemic. There’s a good reason our partners are focusing there; The 19.1% estimated decline in first-time enrollments among 18-20-year-olds represents a major hit to many community colleges’ most reliable student market. We expect the effects of the pandemic on this group—and their college-going rates—to last for years to come, as learning loss decreases college readiness and students miss important supports like pre-college counseling and FAFSA completion assistance. Re-establishing their access pipeline is imperative to reaching pre-pandemic enrollments and our equity mission. This means changing the way colleges view accessibility with strategies like dual enrollment expansion and automatic admissions.

Meet with an EAB expert to learn about promising prospective markets and how your institution can best reach them—schedule a Market Strategy Review Session. Additionally, use our FAFSA Submission Support Content to help show prospective students that college can still be a reality.

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