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Helping students complete their two-year college education or obtain a certificate for career entry or upgrade always has been implicit to the mission of community colleges. Yet, the impetus to move this goal to a higher priority may not have taken place until several years ago when national leaders, along with local and federal government officials, focused on the issue.
In spring 2010, leaders of six national organizations representing the nation’s nearly 1,200 community colleges and their 11.8 million students signed a commitment to increase college completion rates by 50 percent over the next decade. The College Completion Challenge: A Call to Action pledge-signing event preceded the White House Summit on Community Colleges, convened later that year by President Barack Obama and presided over by Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor and wife of Vice President Joe Biden. While the summit covered several issues pertinent to community colleges, college completion was high on the agenda.
Thus, the challenge to prioritize college completion became incumbent upon community colleges. Consequently, marketing staff at the colleges understood they had a unique opportunity and a responsibility to help craft the “college completion” message and convey it to current and prospective students, as well as to the communities they serve.
Commitment from leadership, students
How the colleges are moving the marketing initiative forward may differ by institution, but there is agreement among them that developing and implementing the internal marketing effort comes first. At Joliet Junior College (JJC) in Illinois, Andrea Lehmacher, director of marketing and creative services, says the college has recently undergone leadership changes with a new president and other top leaders joining the institution during the past year.
This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Lehmacher says JJC, the nation’s first and oldest community college, has formed a core committee that includes the dean of enrollment management, an academic dean and the director of marketing, along with college leaders, to discuss ways to inform employees about what the college completion agenda is and what it means for the college.
“We are collaborating to put a framework around it first. We are doing our internal marketing campaign. Then, we will develop the strategy,” Lehmacher explains.
The college also will work with its local Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) Honor Society chapter on these efforts, she adds.
Kyle Schwarm, executive director of statewide marketing for the Wisconsin Technical College System, says collaboration and consensus-building are important in the 16-college system and that its perspective is a little different because the colleges are serving more occupational students.
“People are not always focused on degree completion, especially people who are already employed and only looking to enhance skills in a very specific occupational area,” Schwarm says.
“There can be a disconnect between completion and getting individuals with skills into the workforce as quickly as possible to solve the skills gap,” Schwarm explains. “One area we would like to do better in is monitoring student success and counseling students who might be at risk of dropping out and measuring why people are not coming back to finish their education.”
Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois launched its Agree to Degree college completion initiative in fall 2010. Like JJC, Moraine Valley first implemented an internal marketing campaign to engage faculty, staff and current students in the college-wide effort.
The campaign launched with a letter from Moraine Valley’s president to faculty and staff urging their support of the Agree to Degree initiative. The letter cited benefits to students if they obtain their associate degree before transferring or stopping out of college, and also included steps faculty and employees could take to help students in their pursuit of degree or career certification completion. In addition, a special announcement to students—detailing advantages to them personally of college completion—was attached to the letter. The college president required faculty to attach the announcement to all students’ syllabi.
Bringing faculty, community on board
Several other marketing efforts were started at Moraine Valley to advance the initiative. A pledge to support students’ degree completion in specific ways was developed and distributed to all employees, including adjunct faculty, who were asked to sign the pledges as affirmation of their support. Before long, signed pledges were on display outside the offices of college faculty and staff all over campus.
Other internal marketing strategies included: a student Agree to Degree pledge form with a wallet-size detachable card for them to keep and articles in the student newspaper and student e-newsletter.
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Moraine Valley launched its external campaign in spring 2011, with outdoor billboards and bus ads, radio and TV commercials, print ads and features in the spring, fall and summer printed class schedules. The college integrated the Agree to Degree messaging into its regularly scheduled advertising and marketing activities.
A major boost to the campaign came when students in the PTK chapter threw their full support behind the effort. PTK students created a huge banner, which they hung around campus and urged students to sign it to show their commitment. More than 5,000 students penned their signatures.
PTK students also had a pivotal role at Kankakee Community College (KCC) in Illinois, where they held a “Completion Day” event to raise student awareness. Kari Sargeant, director of marketing and public relations at the college, says students produced a large banner and asked students to commit to completion by signing it. And they did.
The college’s enrollment management group is developing a personalized invitation targeting students who have stopped out or who are close to completion encouraging them to return to finish their degree, Sargeant says. KCC has identified about 1,800 students who will receive the invitations.
The completion challenge has also made KCC “think more strategically about our marketing. I haven’t changed our marketing strategies, but the message development has changed,” Sargeant says.
The economic angle
Message development is key to selling the completion message, and there is no stronger message than the promise of higher income. According to a State Higher Education Executive Officers report, individuals with an associate degree earn about $9,000 more per year than those with only a high school diploma, and about $400,000 more in lifetime earnings.
At the White House Summit in 2010, President Obama stated: “We know, for example, that in the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are going to grow twice as fast a jobs that don’t require college. We will not fill those jobs—or keep those jobs on our shores—without community colleges.”
Clearly, there is an intensifying momentum to market the community college completion agenda—and community colleges are rising to meet the challenge.
Brooks is director of marketing and creative services at Moraine Valley Community College (Illinois).
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