Since the height of the Great Recession, community colleges nationwide have seen substantial enrollment declines among students age 25 and older. Although adult learners commonly leave college during economic recoveries, this decline is more than just a cyclical trend—it also reflects growing enrollment competition from for-profit and four-year universities.
Adult learners may value the convenience of for-profit institutions and the brand of four-year universities, but career relevance ultimately guides their college choice. Within this context, community colleges' greatest assets are their employer partnerships. A recent study by Lisa Qing, a consultant at the Education Advisory Board (EAB) examines how colleges can leverage these partnerships to recruit adult learners who seek to advance or reboot their careers.
Established in 2007, the EAB is a trusted advisor and performance improvement partner to more than 1,000 colleges and universities across North America and Europe. One of EAB’s areas of expertise is community colleges.
On behalf of the Community College Executive Forum, Qing researches topics in workforce development and enrollment management. Her most recent work examines how universities can leverage employer partnerships to recruit adult learners. She has also explored emerging training needs in manufacturing, cybersecurity, and aging services. Prior to joining EAB, Lisa coordinated an international exchange program for high school students. She holds an A.B. with honors in History from Brown University.
The Advocate of Affordable College recently interviewed Qing. Here are my questions and her answers.
Greg Jarboe: First of all, thank you for answering our questions. I understand that you research topics in enrollment management and workforce development at EAB. Are there some strategic insights that you can share with forward-thinking community college leaders?
Lisa Qing: Up until recently, community colleges haven’t had to invest much in enrollment management. As open access institutions, they could simply open their doors and let students come to them. Today, as community colleges face unprecedented enrollment declines, forward-thinking leaders are recognizing that this hands-off approach is no longer enough. There are fewer prospective students available as high school graduating classes shrink and adult learners head back to work. Moreover, other institutions—not just for-profit colleges but also four-year universities—are increasingly competing with community colleges for students.
To maintain enrollments in this landscape, community colleges have to find systematic and scalable strategies to recruit students. They don’t have the vast marketing budgets of their competitors, but they do have other assets—including employer partnerships, which can make them very attractive to career-driven students.
Greg Jarboe: Your work examines how community colleges can maximize their employer partnerships. How should colleges identify and build relationships with potential employer partners?
Lisa Qing: Some of the most progressive practices for building employer partnerships actually come from noncredit divisions, many of which offer customized trainings for local businesses. Rather than relying on mass marketing channels such as TV or radio, these divisions often use industry-specific channels that allow them to build relationships with potential clients. For example, they might sponsor conferences or award ceremonies in their local business community to get exposure to industry executives. They might also partner with industry associations for access to member organizations. In our research, we came across one college that works with industry associations to create co-branded needs assessment surveys for association members. These surveys allow them to identify organizations with talent gaps that the college can help resolve.
Greg Jarboe: One particular topic that your research explores is how employer partnerships can help community colleges address their enrollment challenges. How can colleges leverage these partnerships to recruit adult learners?
Lisa Qing: Adult learners are almost always returning to college for career-related reasons—they typically want to advance in their careers, change careers, or start a new career. When it comes to recruiting these students, employer partnerships can be a great asset. In 2014, Arizona State University made headlines when Starbucks announced that they’d cover tuition for employees who pursued online degrees there. Community colleges can—and do—establish similar tuition reimbursement partnerships.
Employer partnerships can also make community colleges more attractive to unemployed or underemployed workers, who view training as a stepping stone to finding a new job. Some colleges have employer partners who have agreed to guarantee a job interview to any student who completes certain high-demand training programs. Colleges rarely have trouble filling seats in programs that provide such a direct path to employment.
Greg Jarboe: Adult learners face many barriers to enrollment and completion. What tips would you give community college leaders who want to remove these barriers?
Lisa Qing: It’s common for prospective adult learners to have anxieties about enrolling in college. Because they’ve been out of the classroom so long, they often question whether they’re still able to take tests, solve algebra problems, or simply fit in among college students. In our research, we came across one community college that allows prospective adult learners to take a free 8-week course that covers study skills and on-campus resources. In addition to helping students overcome fears about college, this course provides them with an incentive to enroll because each course completer receives a small scholarship for the following semester.
Another major barrier facing almost all adult learners is the need to balance coursework with competing commitments, including work and family responsibilities. The good news is that community colleges are increasingly adopting stackable certificates, credit for prior learning, and other innovations that can accelerate completion for working adults.
(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)