Statewide systems join forces for summer programs

Waubonsee Community College is part of a community college consortium in Illinois to encourage university students home for the summer to take a few courses at a local two-year college that they can transfer toward their degree. (Photo: WCC)

For varying lengths of time, community colleges have been working to market their summer course offerings to university students who are looking to pick up extra credits at a lower cost.

Some students already have associate degrees from those same schools and are returning “home,” so to speak, while others simply grew up in a given two-year college’s service area.

More recently, in some states, community colleges have partnered to market their summer programs, gaining resulting economies of scale without trying to poach one another’s students — although in some cases, a school outside of a university student’s home service area might have a special offering that their home school does not.

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a two-part series on how some community colleges are using their summer programs to attract university students home for the summer.

In 2018, the statewide community college system in California teamed with the California State University (CSU) system on an online course finder for the state’s 114 community colleges. CSU markets the site to their students because it recognizes their students already are taking summer courses at community colleges and wants to make it easier for them, says Andrea Hanstein, director of communications and strategic partnerships for the CCC California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative.

Illinois community colleges have banding for a bit longer, since 2014, but also have started more slowly and organically, with eight colleges signing up at the outset and 22 of the state’s 48 schools currently participating. The effort targeting six state universities — University of Illinois, Illinois State, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois — started with print ads but has gone digital in recent years, says Katye Hamel, executive director of college relations and the Kishwaukee College Foundation, whose Malta, Illinois-based school coordinated the first five years of the effort.

Investing more in digital

The California portal, called Finish Faster, contains more than 10,000 online course sections that students can search based on factors including transferability. Between its initial launch in May 2018 and the end of August last year, the system took in 1,916 applications. The portal will launch for this summer’s courses on May 1.

“We learned a lot about the types of things students searched for, and which features were helpful,” says Jory Hadsell, executive director of CCC California Virtual Campus, which offers courses for $31 to $46 per unit, compared with $300 to $450 at CSU, depending on the campus. “It’s also helped us identify for students which colleges offer online communications, or math and statistics  — areas student really need. We can provide them with access that they may not get at their home college.”

The CCC virtual campus promoted the opportunity heavily on sites like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Pandora, and it plans to do the same this spring along with setting up tables at CSU campuses to hand out printed materials.

“But digital did wonders for us,” Hanstein says. “We had over 3 million impressions.”

Virtual campus officials realized students responded better when they saw the name and logo of their local college, so they are co-branding this year. Another aim: targeting “higher education deserts” more than 20 miles from a physical campus location.

In talking with other states, the California initiative learned that articulation has been a challenge, and the two-year system worked closely with CSU to ensure that issue wouldn’t create headaches for students, Hadsell says. “We didn’t want them to find a course, take it and then have problems getting someone else to accept it later on,” he says.

Among the schools involved have been the four colleges comprising the Peralta Community College District: Berkeley City College, College of Alameda and Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland. Peralta advertised summer courses to students from surrounding universities in graduation editions of print newspapers, “targeting students who want to either catch up, get ahead or test the waters of different majors before committing to them at their [more expensive] universities,” says Diana Fitzgerald, public information officer at the district.

Working together

The Illinois effort started in 2014 when Kishwaukee College’s vice president of students asked what the school did about summer advertising, then mostly directed to university students at Northern Illinois because “advertising to other schools would be cost-prohibitive,” Hamel says. The idea of a consortium was floated on a statewide listserv for marketing directors, and the first year eight schools invested about $1,000 on a joint campaign focused on print ads at half a dozen universities, she says.

“The message at that time was looking at the cost of taking a class at the local community college compared with a university,” Hamel says. Over time, that message has evolved away from a cost focus because “pointing out state universities’ higher costs might not be good branding with them,” she says, and instead has focused on awareness of the ability to bring credits back to one’s university campus.

The initiative, taken over this summer by Waubonsee Community College, also has gone digital, using data and analytics in a way print does not offer, and leveraging the technology of “geofencing” to pinpoint where students live and target ads to them about the offerings at their specific regional community colleges. “Geofencing serves up general ads for summer classes,” Hamel says. “When you click on the ads, it takes you to a landing page with logos linked to individual community college websites.”

In Kishwaukee’s experience, those taking summer courses are often university students who attended nearby high schools and are coming home for the summer. But the school also is marketing to recent high school graduates with a marketing campaign “that wherever you’re going to school, taking a class at Kish is a great way to get a jump start,” she says.

The school and its partners have not faced issues with articulation because they ensure summer courses are compliant, Hamel says. “If you know you’re going to go to Eastern or U of I, and you’re going to take English 103, we can tell you what that course is going to translate to, and make sure students understand how the course articulates,” she says.

Meeting a demand

Harper College in suburban Palatine, Illinois, is among those that have participated in the statewide consortium. Harper is adding about 20 additional online sections this summer, and the school has seen the gap between face-to-face and online course enrollment shrink from a difference of 4,300 to 2,100 in the past four years — a demand “driven significantly by students who attend four-year institutions,” says Kimberly Pohl, manager of media relations and legislative affairs.

Many of Harper’s returning university students are “reverse transfer” graduates of the campus who are, in effect, coming home, says Phil Mortenson, the college’s distance learning manager.

“In general, Harper has been consistent about saying that we want you to think of Harper College as a home for you, as a place to take courses once you leave Harper,” he says. “We’re marketing to students who have been with us and have ties within the community.”

Summer enrollment growth has been about 6 percent the last couple of years, and online enrollment has grown from 24 percent in summer 2015 to 37 percent so far this year, Mortensen says. “A lot of that is coming from reverse-transfer students,” he says.

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.