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COLLEGE—Community Colleges Find Media Play Nets Students

The hallowed halls of learning are taking a cue from the world of business. Seeking to attract an increasingly mobile population with more educational options than ever before, San Fernando Valley community colleges are embarking on mass media advertising campaigns to lure students. The radio and television campaigns, which augment traditional brochures detailing classes and schedules, are, in some cases, doubling marketing costs for the colleges, but administrators say the additional expense is worth it. “We used to follow the field-of-dreams school: offer it and they will come,” said Mike Cornner, director of marketing and public relations for Pierce College, which began radio advertising last spring and added a television campaign for the fall 2000 semester. “Then one day they don’t come. We don’t live in the kind of society where one can afford not to market what you’re doing.” Los Angeles Mission College has been running television commercials for the past two years, and, largely because of the success of its efforts and those at Pierce, Los Angeles Valley College plans to add television advertising to its radio media buys this spring. “You get the college name out there, and I think it helps,” said Shannon Stack, director of media services at Valley. Enrollment at all nine Los Angeles Community College District campuses has been on the rise, jumping 6 percent to 108,150 this fall from 100,404 students in fall 1999. But Valley schools have outpaced even that average. Fall 2000 enrollment at Pierce soared 21 percent to 16,352 from 13,512 in the prior year. Enrollment at Valley, which has been running radio ads, jumped nearly 15 percent to 17,955 from 15,682 the year earlier. And Mission enrolled 7,200 students in its fall 2000 semester programs, a 9-percent increase over 6,600 the previous year. This fall, Pierce spent about $25,000 to persuade local residents to stick close to home. The college ran commercials on such cable stations as MTV, VH1 and Lifetime and radio ads on KBIG-FM (104) and KYSR-FM (98.7). Cornner wrote the ads, which were then produced by the radio stations and by Time-Warner. Radio stations reach large areas of the city and, as a result, are expensive. But cable TV advertising can focus on specific areas, making them very affordable, even by community college standards, officials said. “We determined where our students come from and we went after that area,” said Carlos Nava, vice president of student services at Los Angeles Mission College. “We know we have a densely populated area, so we need to market at home first.” Repeating the message Mission this year spent about $115,000 on its advertising campaign, up from less than $50,000 two years ago, Nava said, primarily because of the addition of cable advertising with three companies: Adelphia, Time Warner and Media One Group Inc. “The principal factor (in advertising) is repeating your message’ Nava said. “And the more and varied ways you can reach the target population, the more your message is going to stick.” The cost effectiveness of cable TV advertising also persuaded Valley College to try the medium. “It seemed we would get a better bit of coverage with cable,” said Stack, who has also tried running ads in movie theaters, but stopped because the theaters require that ads run for nearly half the year, well beyond the period when students register for classes. College officials point to a number of reasons for the increases not all having to do with advertising. Pierce went to a shorter, 15-week semester it believes attracts students who want to spend a few extra weeks at summer jobs and moms who may not have child-care alternatives until their own children are in school. Mission has added a number of new tracks, including multi-media, computer-assisted drawing and culinary arts, programs it believes attracts students returning to school for re-training. But while these programs may have helped clinch the deal, the advertising was instrumental in getting the word out to students in the first place, officials believe. “Community college enrollment throughout California is experiencing an increase, partly I believe because more of us are doing marketing, which is kind of a new phenomenon,” said Nava at Los Angeles Mission College. Pierce, which began to see enrollment rise last spring for the first time in 20 years, believes its success is directly related to its advertising efforts. “This summer, when we started advertising for fall, the first day that the ad broke we got 200 applications, and the registrar’s office was running at dizzying heights,” said Cornner, the school’s first-ever director of marketing, who joined the staff in January. “The next day we had about 250 applications, and then we hit 300 and 350.” Typically, Cornner said, the school receives about 20 applications a day in the week before the semester begins. Wider-roaming students Originally designed to serve their local communities, these colleges are now serving a more diverse student population with many more options. High school graduates may choose neighborhood schools, but older students returning to school for additional training to further their career or change jobs are choosing from a wide variety of schools. “We knew there were 50,000 community college students who live in the Los Angeles Community College area, who went to colleges outside our district,” said Cornner. “We have students who will drive to Santa Monica to go to school. We lose some to Glendale and Pasadena. With freeways being what they are, they may live in Woodland Hills, but work in Burbank. They have choices.” Not everyone agrees the additional expense of mass media advertising is worth the cost. Glendale Community College ran television spots several years ago but dropped them. “I think the issue is that we have so many audiences at a community college,” said Ann Ransford, director of communications marketing at Glendale Community. “Advertising to a high school student is very different from advertising to a 24-year-old. Unless you can afford to do a tremendous amount of radio and television advertising, it loses its effectiveness.” Ransford also points out that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the advertising, and her counterparts, even those who use radio and television, agree. Although no one has been able to establish a direct correlation between advertising and enrollment increases, proponents believe the marketing efforts have helped bring students through the door. “The major way a student indicates they heard about Mission is word of mouth,” said Nava. “So we’re guessing that part of that word of mouth they got from cable.”

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