Sunday, February 01, 2015


Appealing to an Older Demographic

Community colleges are swimming upstream in American culture in several ways.  They’re open-admissions, in a culture based on increasing polarization and exclusivity.  They’re built to create a middle class for a country that’s pulling its middle class apart.  And they’re markedly diverse in a society in which birds of a feather increasingly flock together; in many places, they’re the only major institution in which people from different classes interact, other than malls.  And malls are dying.

Add this one to the list.  If community colleges in the Northeast and Midwest are going to thrive, they’re going to have to learn to appeal to an older demographic.

In our culture as a whole, institutions trip over themselves to appeal to the young.  The idea, other than habit, is that older consumers or voters have become set in their ways and hard to change, but younger ones are still malleable.  Therefore, you get the most bang for the buck by reaching out to the young.  And in some parts of life, there’s probably some truth to that.  

But in some regions, the number of 18 year olds is dropping.  And the political scientist in me can’t help but notice that older Americans vote at much higher rates than younger ones.

Putting those trends together, it’s clear that if they want to maintain or build both their enrollments and their political clout, community colleges will need to appeal more to adults, and especially to senior citizens, who vote at the very highest rates.

Many colleges are already trying the first strategy -- including my own -- through developing and marketing programs and/or delivery methods geared towards working adults.  That usually involves a combination of career-oriented content, credit for prior learning, and flexible scheduling.  It’s difficult to do well, but essential for both communities and community colleges.  This is where you target the thirty-five-year-old who wants to get a better job.

The second strategy is a little less obvious.  Assuming that most senior citizens aren’t terribly interested in job changes, how do you win them over?

One way, I suspect, is to offer regular, free, dedicated on-campus programming.  A seniors’ day, with faculty presentations in areas of likely interest, can go a long way.  (I’ve seen them work well when they’re coordinated with local senior centers, which usually have slates of local cultural events to which their members go.)  That’s especially true when the events happen on the physical campus of the college, and when they happen on a regular schedule.  An annual College Day can go a long way.

Events like those require coordination, and they aren’t free, but they build community support.  That comes in handy when priorities start to collide, as they have a way of doing.

The payoff is hard to measure directly.  You can do surveys, but those tend to measure in-the-moment impressions, as opposed to lasting ones.  In a time of limited resources, it’s easy to dismiss this sort of outreach as “squishy,” or “nice to have.”  But comparing the fates of, say, AFDC on one hand and Social Security on the other, I’d suggest that having seniors on your side is well worth the effort.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen effective and innovative ways that local colleges have recruited local seniors as allies?  Are there other, better ways to achieve the same goal?

The parents of kids already at community college seem like an easy to reach population - either when the kids enroll or when the kids graduate. They will be starting to have free time on their hands because their kids are at age when they are starting to look after themselves (especially the stat-at-home mothers but also the working parents who may be able to work less since they have fewer kids to financially support and as they are getting older are probably looking to work smarter not harder anyway).

I would guess these parents probably haven't been to college at all so won't know where to start but their kids know it all - maybe have a "bring your parents to school" day where the parents can sit in and hear the lectures. Get them to share their life experience to show them how much they can offer without having to be book smart.

One "older demographic" consists of veterans. They are older than their years suggest and they have needs that can often be met better in the small classes offered at a CC, although they have other needs that are less easy to deal with unless you get support from the VA.

(I don't know if your region has the numbers that ours does, however, and it could be a transient demand. I only know what I see, and some have been out of service for only a few months while others have been out for a few years and have now decided to enter college.)

I like the suggestion in the comment above. Although the numbers are small, there are instances where first-time-in-family children have recruited their parents to get a degree. I can see where it could be made less rare with a good way to give credit for prior experience and skills.
This works at the secondary and primary school level as well. One of the strategies my rural public school district used to pass budgets while I was in high school was to say that if it didn't pass and we had to go to the austerity budget instead, the "senior room" at the high school was going to have to go. It worked, for a while.

Unfortunately, when the recession hit it was austerity every year and it basically hollowed out all of the school's "extras" (art, music, community college-level classes). But it worked for a while.
On our snow day, I'll just note- resist the temptation to set up your senior day during snow season.

The CC I went to offered reduced tuition for seniors, and actively encouraged them in discussion based classes. There are bits of the humanities and philosophy classes that would have been intangibly poorer if I'd taken them in a more homogeneous group.
Someday, the advertisers are going to realize how open-to-new-things that flavor of senior really is, but that's another rant.

You could also consider looking at whether local community organizations like Toastmasters and garden clubs need meeting space that you could offer- those groups are pretty diverse age wise or skew to the retired crowd.

A health club with an accessible and warm pool that offers good aqua aerobics (can do an arthritis relief version) can also get seniors in, but you either have the appropriate infrastructure or you don't, it's not a trivial thing to start up.
It is relevant that when you serve someone at a CC, you often serve their entire family, which goes both up and down the age spectrum.

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