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?