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2012 May 21 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: United We Stand


Jose Snook of Tucson, Ariz., works on his online class while spending time with his children.
AP photo/The Tucson Citizen, Francisco Medina

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

United We Stand
Colleges Band Together To Take On For-Profits

By Paul Bradley
Editor, Community College Week

 

In the hyper-competitive world of distance education and its marketing, community colleges are finding themselves at a distinct disadvantage.

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True, community colleges offer more online courses than any other type of institution. Yes, community colleges are located all over the country, in rural and urban areas and in the suburbs. No doubt, their on-line offerings are affordable, accessible and available.

But none of these factors has been able to counter the economic might and marketing savvy of for-profit behemoths such as the University of Phoenix. When prospective students use Internet search engines such as Google or Bing to plot their education path, they are often led to the for-profit providers that pay the most for online positioning.

Now, community college distance education programs and the American Association of Community Colleges are stepping up their fight to end the domination of for-profits when it comes to Internet searches. On March 22, a new website aimed at making community colleges more visible on the Internet went live.

Onlinecommunitycolleges.org (OCC) is a single portal where prospective students can search and compare online degree programs at public community colleges around the country. The website, which has been under development for more than a year, promotes and markets the online programs of participating colleges through online and traditional marketing tools. The site was the topic of a session held at the AACC convention held last month in Orlando, Fla.

It’s an attempt to steer low-income students, displaced workers and the unemployed to affordable community colleges rather than the high-priced, for-profit alternatives. It is rooted in the belief that community colleges, on their own, can’t compete against the for-profits and the billions they spend every year on marketing, but together they can make themselves more visible and allow prospective students to make fully informed educational choices.

So far, nine colleges, each a leader in online education, have signed up: Anne Arundel Community College, Broward College Online, Dallas TeleCollege Online, Darton College, Foothill College, Illinois Central College Virtual Campus, Ivy Tech Community College, Northern Virginia Community College and Rio Salado Community College.

Those colleges enroll more than 600,000 students and offer more than 2,000 online courses. Nationwide, more than 6 million students are enrolled in at least one online course.

The LeCroy Center for Educational Telecommunications, part of the Dallas County Community College District, is leading the OCC effort. Pamela Quinn is the provost there.

“The time to do this is now,” she said. “If we don’t make community colleges more visible online, we are going to be out of this game.”

“The online environment can be a real confusing place for students trying to take that first step….we need to be part of this very competitive marketplace.”

Initial results are encouraging, said Valerie Cavazos, director of marketing at the DCCD. Since site went live in late March — bolstered by a national marketing campaign combining display advertising and keyword search — the website is averaging 65,000 impressions (the number of times a site is viewed) and 350 site visits every day.

“We want to be a trusted resource for students, where they can find affordable online alternatives,” Cavazos said. ““We are casting our net much wider than a school could on its own.”

OCC is actively seeking new members. Quinn said that about 30 schools would be an optimum number. But some institutions might be put off by the cost. Members must pay either $24,500 or $49,000 a year, depending the level of services they want. Less costly alternatives are on the way. Next year, colleges will be able to pay $10,000 to get their basic information listed on the website, or add individual online certificate or degree programs for $5,000.

Worth the Cost?

Quinn said the service is well worth the price when considering how much colleges pay for marketing, call centers and the like. Her college, for instance, pays $2,000 a month to operate a call center to recruit on line students. She added that the money collected from colleges will be plowed back into the website.

The effort faces other obstacles outside of the cost. Some observers believe that the field of websites vying for top placement in web search engines is so crowded that OCC has taken on an impossible task. Others fret that colleges who are members of OCC will dilute their own message and educational offerings by pooling resources with other institutions. Questions persist about whether a non-profit entity has the knowledge and energy to compete with for-profit institutions.

Moreover, mere presence on the site is no guarantee of success in enrolling online students. Once a prospective student clicks through to a college’s website, the institution must pick up the ball and run with it, said Todd Simmons, vice president of business and employee services at Rio Salado Community College.

Up to Colleges

“We are successful if we get prospective students clicking through and getting on the websites of the individual colleges,” he said. “Then it’s up to them to enroll these students.”

For Rio Salado, OCC was a natural choice, Simmons said While it offers all of its courses online, only 9 percent of its students come from outside its home of Maricopa County, Ariz. To boost enrollment in a significant way, it will have to look outside its borders.

What makes OCC different from the numerous online portals containing links to community colleges is that searches can be conducted by college name, program, cost, demographics, geographic area, financial aid and scholarships. Visitors to the site will be encouraged to investigate the online offerings at their local community college first. If that institution does not offer the program the student wants, he or she will be directed to an “affordable trusted alternative.”

Simmons said a strong online presence is an imperative for community colleges. The traditional marketing tools – print advertising, billboards, radio and TV advertising – is no longer enough to reach today’s technology-enmeshed students.

“The online marketing option is taking off,” he said. “Our online students use Facebook and Twitter, and peer-to-peer is becoming more and more important.”

OCC also can yield rich data about prospective students who are interested in a particular institution, allowing schools to undertake keenly targeted recruiting efforts.

“This gives us better data than we have ever had before,” Quinn said. “It’s something that colleges, by themselves, can’t do. But together, we can do it.”

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: Can community colleges effectively compete against for-profit institutions when it comes to visibility through Internet search engines?
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