Embracing business strategies to drive enrollment

Laura Leatherwood, president of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Community College, with members of the college's board of trustees at the Education Elevated brand reveal event in May. (Photo: Blue Ridge)

Thinking of community colleges as a business is not a new concept, but it is a controversial one.

As college enrollment in the U.S. continues to decline, and unemployment rates remain low, we are losing revenue. However, we cannot let our concern for financial well-being overshadow why we were called to this work in the first place: To lift the students and communities that we serve on our path forward together.

“Higher education faces a dilemma,” wrote Richard M. Freeland, president emeritus of Northeastern University, in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We undoubtedly need more sophisticated administrative leadership, including being smart about generating revenue, but we also must be true to our roots in educating young people, seeking the truth, helping communities, and preserving the most important values of our culture.”

As the student market is shrinking, and higher education affordability is top-of-mind for students, “the pressure on chief marketing officers (marketers) is also growing, and they understand the huge responsibility they have in an institution’s success,” said Rob Moore of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education in “The New College CMO” case study by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

When I first arrived at Blue Ridge Community College (North Carolina) in 2017, our enrollment numbers, like many others in the country, were declining. Fast forward to today: Our enrollment has been up for the last two consecutive semesters. What is precipitating the sudden increase? This article will explore how we:

  • Conducted an extensive listening tour, realizing the need to change perceptions.
  • Aligned with the statewide system.
  • Developed and are implementing business strategies over the next decade.
  • Became entrepreneurially nimble.
  • Launched a rebranding campaign.

Changing perceptions

Following my arrival, I conducted a grassroots listening tour with our communities to evaluate Blue Ridge’s current position and where to strategically move forward. We also issued brand perception surveys to internal (faculty, staff and students) and external (prospective students, high school guidance counselors and community members) audiences.

Based on the findings from the brand perception surveys, Blue Ridge’s lingering perceptions from the community included “Blue Ridge Tech” (only technical trade/vocational curriculum), a second-choice school, and an easy route for students. Interestingly, 89 percent of the same community survey respondents thought Blue Ridge was very important to our region.

In addition to our own brand perceptions, we identified perception issues with some of our area’s leading industries. One of those industries — advanced manufacturing — needed a change in perception for students to better understand what modern manufacturing is in the 21st century.

Generational perceptions won’t change overnight, but through strategic partnerships with K-12 schools, economic development boards, nonprofits, businesses, local governments and others, we can help close interest gaps over time and meet students on their terms, such as bridging advanced manufacturing principles to gaming.

Aligning with the state system

By 2020, 67 percent of jobs in North Carolina are projected to require postsecondary education. For this reason, the myFutureNC Commission set its postsecondary attainment goal for two-thirds of North Carolinians aged 25 to 44 to receive a high-quality credential or college degree by 2030.

Each institution within our statewide higher education, including the 58 community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), has an important role to play in this postsecondary attainment goal to meet students where they are and prepare them for success.

Peter Hans became NCCCS president a year after I arrived at Blue Ridge, and the timing of our arrivals was fortunate to help change the perception of community colleges statewide. Following his arrival, NCCCS issued its four-year strategic plan and conducted a similar brand-research process to us to develop their statewide marketing campaign, which included a focus on rural communities.

Alignment with NCCCS was key to ensure consistency of priorities and messages between the region and state.

Prioritizing business strategies

Fortunately, Blue Ridge already had highly qualified faculty, staff and programs, albeit our educational value was often regarded as “a best-kept secret” in the region. To increase enrollment, we adopted a business approach that emphasized community outreach and marketing in the first three years of my presidency, then will prioritize facility modernization over the next four to seven years.

A strong leadership team could also operationalize these business strategies effectively.

Becoming entrepreneurially nimble

As Madeline Pumariega of Tallahassee Community College and Carrie Henderson of the Florida College System wrote in Community College Daily, community colleges are becoming more entrepreneurial in their operational strategies.

After my listening tour with partners and hearing their industry needs, we responded by becoming entrepreneurially nimble and quickly evolving our already high-quality programs and customized training opportunities. This fall, for instance, we will launch start-up programs – four new diplomas and four new certificate programs in areas like leadership studies – to existing programs where students can stack credentials and easily build credits toward an associate degree.

Additionally, after learning of the expected industry growth and need for local employees with advanced competencies and soft skills, Blue Ridge Community College partnered with Henderson County Public Schools, Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development, Elkamet, GF Linamar, Meritor and WestRock to launch the Made in Henderson County Apprenticeship Program, a new advanced manufacturing workforce initiative.

Not only were we adapting to the challenges and opportunities of our regional economy, but these in-demand programs like advanced manufacturing, brewing, early college, information technology and nursing would provide our marketing team with substantive stories of how we are enriching students’ lives and meeting workforce needs.

Rebranding on our 50th anniversary

Following our listening tour and outreach efforts, Blue Ridge was more connected to our community than ever, and as our next business strategy, we needed to better align marketing efforts with our vision and evolving programs. This year’s 50th anniversary was the ideal time for Blue Ridge to launch a rebranding campaign, “Education Elevated.”

Backed by nearly six months of primary, secondary and digital marketing research to better understand our audiences, differentiators and how we complement partner institutions, the rebranding campaign highlights how we are elevating the educational experience to prepare students for 21st-century success in the workforce or at four-year colleges and universities.

Tied to our brand pillars and our new logo’s “three summits,” which represent quality, affordability and access, one of our key messages to younger audiences emphasizes the salaries of our partners’ promising careers. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Generation Z is entrepreneurial, desires practical skills from their education and are concerned about the cost of college.

Video: Rebranding Blue Ridge

We launched our rebrand campaign by adopting an “inside-first” approach where campus community members understand and embrace the brand before external audiences. Campus community adoption is critical to the brand’s success. Before the rebrand unveiling at an internal workshop, we created a “brand council” of select employees and students across our three campuses to serve as a sounding board for the initial brand concepts and as our ambassadors for future brand implementation.

Because brands are not monolithic, we are re-evaluating and refining our brand – as well as our job training, college transfer and continuing education programs – to meet the growing and evolving needs of our students, our community and our state.

Our recent increase in enrollment isn’t by accident. Taking the time to actively listen to our communities, then quickly responding with evolving curriculum and outreach and marketing initiatives that reflect our path forward – all within two years – are working to change perceptions and create more pathways for success for our students and our region.

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