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Slick Ad Campaigns Seek to Boost Enrollment at Community Colleges

December 04, 1986|ROY H. CAMPBELL | Times Staff Writer

Close-up of the inside of a moving car: A finger pushes the radio button and a driving beat begins. Drums clash and the scene shifts to two young women walking up a flight of steps.

The music intensifies as the camera flashes to a muscular man putting on a T-shirt, then to a gym full of lithe dancers pirouetting. Finally, just as singer Phil Collins' voice intones, "Now Billy, Billy don't you lose my number," a group of frolicking students face the camera. Ten of them are holding pieces of white cardboard that bear a phone number that the film's makers want viewers to remember.

A scene from a new rock video? Well, sort of. It is actually a recruitment film. And the phone number is that of Glendale Community College.

The 4 1/2-minute video, produced by students at Glendale College, will be shown at high schools. A 30-second version will air as a commercial on cable stations MTV and CNN next month. The college also has run a radio commercial designed to appeal to divorcees and women who are planning to return to work, and is designing a slick, four-color class schedule to be mailed to 115,000 households.

"Now more than ever it is important that we reach our potential clients and let them know that we are here and have something to offer them," said Merry Shelburne, the college's director of public relations.

The college's enrollment has hovered around 11,500 for the last five years. Administrators, who want that figure to grow, acknowledge that marketing is crucial.

Glendale Community College is not alone. Throughout the nation, community colleges are changing and refining recruiting techniques in hopes of boosting enrollment and improving images, experts say.

"It used to be that recruiting meant visiting a few high schools and selling T-shirts during half-time at football games. Now community colleges have to do a better job of marketing in order to survive," said Stu Van Horn, spokesman for the California Assn. of Community Colleges.

Stephen D. Eckstone, owner of a Los Angeles advertising company that specializes in community college marketing, said two-year institutions are learning that they must find their "customers" and then sell themselves effectively.

"It's not unlike what Coca-Cola would do to introduce a new product. It's not enough any more just to wait for people to come to you. You now have to go to them with a product tailored to that particular segment," Eckstone said.

School officials say they are pursuing the "adult learner" with more vigor in the face of declining numbers of college-age students nationwide. They are conducting telephone surveys, mailing questionnaires and gathering mailing lists from senior centers and corporate directories. They are even touting their programs at business mixers and chamber of commerce functions.

Enrollment Nationwide Up 2%

Community college public relations specialists say the marketing methods are working. This year there are about 4.8 million students in the nation's more than 1,200 community colleges, up 2% from last year, according to the American Assn. of Community and Junior Colleges. This reverses a five-year decline in enrollment.

Daniel D. Savage, editor of the association's magazine, said other factors such as an improved economy contributed to that increase, but more sophisticated marketing "has helped turn enrollment around."

California community colleges in particular are turning to marketing consultants to maintain enrollment. Since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, community colleges have relied almost entirely on state funding, which is linked to enrollment. Once all but free, the schools now charge students a $50-per-semester enrollment fee.

The nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District is an example of how community college marketing can work, its officials say.

Surveys Conducted

The district's enrollment had dropped from 140,000 in 1981 to 94,000 in 1985. Its financial health was so bad that some programs were cut and the district considered laying off teachers. Then, last spring and into the summer, administrators conducted surveys to see what classes potential students wanted and how to improve existing programs, said Norm Schneider, director of communication services.

They followed that with telephone canvassing of graduating seniors and calls to those who had applied but not registered for fall classes. Individual departments contacted business people who might want to enroll employees.

Using the information they had gathered, school officials decided to change the start of fall term from late August to mid-September and expand course offerings in English and other basic subjects. Then $500,000 was spent on advertising, more than in previous years.

The result, officials say, was that fall enrollment increased 11.4% this year to 104,000 students--the second-largest gain in district history.

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