Technical assistance

The Million Dollar Community College Challenge

The Lumina Foundation comes announcement a national grant competition that will help community colleges improve their marketing and build stronger brands.

the Million Dollar Community College Challenge is the latest initiative from Lumina, the Indianapolis-based foundation, which aims to help community colleges improve their appeal, relevance, and relationships, especially with mature students.

After several consecutive years of declining enrollment in the community college sector, a trend exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Lumina believes that “community colleges need new ways to connect with millions of Americans who need a university degree or a short-term diploma”.

For too long they have largely relied on two messages to attract students – they are more affordable than four-year institutions and they offer open enrollment in most of their university programs.

Because these messages don’t seem to resonate enough with prospective students — especially working-age adults — Lumina wants to help community colleges reach beyond them. The challenge aims to encourage community colleges to think more strategically about how they build their brands and structure their marketing efforts around new themes.

It will take more than “throwing money at marketing” to attract students. How can community colleges better emphasize the quality of the student experience they provide? What messages will convey their particular expertise? How can they strengthen links with potential employers and regional communities?

While most four-year colleges devote significant resources to marketing, community colleges generally lack the resources needed to mount strategic and well-designed marketing campaigns. Consequently, they miss opportunities to develop their brands and improve the perception of their value. This is where the Challenge comes in.

Challenge Grant Competition

Lumina is inviting applications from public, nonprofit, and regionally accredited community colleges in the United States for grants that will support three goals:

1. Scaling community college marketing and brand awareness efforts.

2. Provide resources and guidance to community colleges to enhance their brands.

3. Develop resources that enhance the use of equity-focused enrollment efforts at community colleges, with a focus on mature students.

The rewards

· Nine colleges will receive $100,000 each, plus technical assistance.

· A college will receive $1 million, plus technical assistance.

Applications will be accepted from February 9 to March 15. Ten finalists will be announced in April and the $1 million winner will be named in August.

Lumina’s Director of Community College Engagement, Shauna Davis, explained the challenge’s focus on branding during a media advisory. “There has been a lot of work going on in this ecosystem around the student success initiative, policy, and breaking down barriers to education. But one area that hasn’t received enough attention is how community colleges communicate both externally and internally. How they position their brands and marketing efforts to capture the attention of adults who have competing life demands,” she said.

According to the latest figures from the National Student Information Clearinghouse Research Center, community colleges suffered a loss of 161,800 students between fall 2020 and fall 2021. That’s a drop of 3.4%. And public two-year colleges remain the hardest-hit higher education sector since the start of the pandemic, with a loss of 706,100 students (-13.2%) since 2019.

These are significant losses, disproportionately affecting working-age adults and students from low-income backgrounds. Lumina’s effort is well targeted. How effective it will be is the next question as higher education continues to grapple with its enrollment challenges