Over the past few years, there has been a continuing evolution of the community college’s place in the American higher education landscape. As the economy has declined, community colleges have enjoyed a wider appeal as a more affordable alternative to private and four-year public institutions, to the point where there is actually a “reverse transfer” trend of students transferring from four-year institutions to community colleges. There has also been an increased demand from displaced workers and military veterans who turn to community colleges to add to their credentials and learn new skills to enhance future employment opportunities. For those, and a number of other reasons, nationwide community college enrollment saw a staggering 20 percent increase from 2007 to 2010, according to figures from the American Association of Community Colleges.
Along with that growth comes a host of challenges: the logistics of rapid expansion, a shifting level of cooperation with private sector employers in a workforce development role, re-branding the institutions and redefining their place in their communities, and the continuing challenge of balancing increased demand and need from the community at a time when state and local fiscal situations place a strain on funding for public institutions. In short, community colleges are being forced to do more with less.
Those are daunting challenges and they force institutions to work smarter. A valuable tool that is available in the effort to be more efficient is market research. There are any number of researched-based solutions community colleges have at their disposal. Here are just a few of them:
- Brand Equity Studies – Many community colleges suffer from an unfair reputation in their communities as being “13th grade” or a last chance option. Those perceptions usually don’t reflect the realities of what the institutions are and can be, but they are very real barriers to community colleges accomplishing their mission. If community colleges want to re-brand and re-position themselves, the first step is to use a combination of qualitative and quantitative research to figure out their current brand equity and to test new approaches.
- Student Service Delivery Evaluation – Rapid enrollment growth puts a strain on the delivery of everything from application procedures to advisement to financial aid, just to name a few. On top of that, today’s community college students (and their parents) have very different service expectations than those from just a generation ago. To discover how well they are meeting their students’ needs, community colleges can use surveys, focus groups and even mystery shopping.
- Student Housing Studies – A recent trend has been the addition of dormitories to the community college campus to broaden their appeal to students who are looking for a residential college experience. Of course, construction of those buildings requires a large investment of time resources. In order to find out if demand exists on their campuses, community colleges can use survey and focus group research to uncover what students are looking for in on-campus housing options. These housing studies can estimate demand for new student housing and calculate its impact on already existing student housing (if applicable).
- Branch Location Site Selection Studies – One way community colleges can meet increased demand is to increase the number of satellite locations in their service areas. But where should these sites be placed? Using demographic analysis, traffic volume studies, third-party site evaluations, and community surveys, community colleges can make intelligent, strategic decisions on how to extend their reach.
- Workforce Development Evaluation – Workforce development is part of the core mission of community colleges. Employers increasingly rely on community colleges to turn out workers with essential skills and knowledge. But in today’s rapidly-changing economy, new career areas emerge and others become obsolete at a pace that’s hard to keep up with. By combining primary research at area employers and secondary labor trend data, community colleges can better assess how well they are preparing their students for the employment environment in their local areas.
- New Program Feasibility Study — Related to the previous point, technological and economic changes mean that what students want and need to study is a moving target. But which changes are temporary blips and which are lasting trends that warrant the addition of new program offerings? By compiling labor data, surveying the community, and gathering opinions from employers, community colleges can make sure their programs align with real world demands.
Those are just a few ways market research can address the challenges faced by community colleges. If you’d like to learn more about these and other higher education solutions offered by RMS, contact Sandy Baker, Director of Business Development , at 315-635-9802 or email her at SandyB@RMSresults.com
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