Publications & Products
Volume 3, Issue 5

Options for Competing with For-Profit Institutions

To successfully compete with the well-funded marketing campaigns of for-profit institutions, community colleges should find strategic ways to position themselves, say two communications and marketing practitioners.

And at least one school isn't being shy about tackling the competition head-on.

Last fall, Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., produced a short television advertisement showing how its annual cost of attendance compared to that of some of its nearby for-profit competitors.

"When looking at cost, there is no competition," the announcer says. "The numbers speak for themselves." The announcer adds that Ozarks Technical costs just more than $3,000 a year to attend while the cost of several named proprietary institutions ranged from $14,000 a year to more than $30,000.

Although the advertisement only ran on local television for two weeks, it caught the attention of many people. Joel Doepker, college director of communications and marketing, says he not only heard from community leaders curious about the ad but also from the president of one of the named for-profit institutions who asked how long the college would continue this cost-comparison campaign.

"I don't think [the for-profit institution was] bothered at all by our marketing," Doepker says. "That just shows you how much money they have invested in marketing."

He says the ad was meant as a community service to inform students about some of the possible challenges of attending proprietary institutions, including taking on heavy debt loads to having trouble finding a job upon graduation. He adds that he felt the college had to increase community awareness of its affordable degree programs.

After showing four different version of the advertisement to a focus group of students, he found that the one highlighting cost differential resonated most with them.

"What's not in the ad and is harder to communicate is how our accreditation, program quality and job placement rates differentiate from the for-profit colleges," Doepker says. "That's harder to explain in a 30-second ad. Cost, on the other hand, is something that's tangible. It's black and white. It's something we felt we could put out there with easy communication."

Given reaction to the ad, he says the college is considering running it once again or something similar to it that compares the college to nearby proprietary institutions in the near future.

"I think community colleges, as a whole, should stand up and shout their message as loud as they can," Doepker says. "This is just one way we've done that. Community colleges are important to the country [but they] don't give themselves as high a profile as they should."

One way other community colleges are sharing their message with prospective students—and actively competing with for-profit institutions for their attention—is through The website is the work of the American Association of Community Colleges and AboutEdu, a nonprofit consumer group. It promotes and markets the online programs of participating community colleges to prospective online students. The site is searchable by college name, program, cost, demographics, geographic area, financial aid, scholarships and other criteria.

Valarie Cavazos, director of the site, says that online searches often direct low-income students, unemployed workers and other underserved populations first to expensive, for-profit institutions and render the more affordable online offerings of community colleges practically invisible. She adds that the site allows community colleges to leverage their combined resources and marketing dollars to garner a higher profile online.

"The whole idea is to come together and collaborate," Cavazos says. "There's strength in numbers."

Currently, 10 colleges from around the country are members of the site and have information about their online programs available. Cavazos says the marketing of the online programs through the site is framed as a "soft sell" to students—telling them about the affordable and quality education they can get through community colleges rather than going directly after proprietary institutions.

However, Cavazos says she is considering a more "harder-hitting" approach to marketing after hearing about the tactics of some for-profit institutions to thwart the online marketing efforts of community colleges. For example, she recently discovered that some for-profit institutions are making targeted keyword ad buys so that their institution shows up first when someone searches for a specific community college by name. To get the brand in front of more prospective students, she says the site is now using targeted ads that follow web users and expose them to an ad a few times a week. This, she says, "gives the impression we have bigger ad dollars than we actually have."

Cavazos believes that community colleges are slowly adjusting to the idea of marketing their online programs outside of their service areas. She notes that, although online marketing is expensive, community colleges that collaborate in the way that the members of have will be able to expose their offerings to a new, national audience.

Please share your questions and comments with Marc Westenburg via email at or +1 202 478 5570.

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This article is from the November 2013 issue of the Community College Advancement News.