San Diego is known for many things: surfing at La Jolla, the giant pandas at the zoo, and great Mexican food, to name a few. 

Now, there’s a new item on your must-see list. On billboards, buses, and through social media posts starting this week, the city’s community college district is placing ads featuring iconic San Diego images, but scrawled over words like “zoo” and “surfing” are new ones: “community colleges,” “career training” and “affordable education.”  In one ad, a picture of carne asada and corn tortillas is paired with a question:  “Are you ready to taco-bout your future?” 

The San Diego Community College District isn’t the only one vying for attention. Los Rios Community College District, which encompasses four community colleges in Sacramento County, put on a drone light display at a Sacramento Republic soccer game last fall with words like “Low Cost,” “Local Careers” and “Start Your Future” suddenly appearing in blue lights across the night sky.  The show, along with other signs and marketing efforts at the soccer stadium, cost the district $160,000. 

These eye-catching stunts are part of a new marketing push to lure California community college students back to campuses after enrollment dropped to a 30-year low during the COVID-19 pandemic. Statewide, community colleges lost nearly 20% of students between 2019 and 2021, according to a memo from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

During the pandemic, California’s community colleges received over a billion dollars in state and federal pandemic relief funds. When enrollment dropped, community colleges and districts started using part of that money to find creative ways to bring students back. 

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has spent more than $40 million in marketing since 2021, more than double what the office spent in the two years prior. 

“We may never have this kind of influx of resources again,” said Gabe Ross, chief strategy officer for Los Rios Community College District. 

Still, what community colleges across the country spend on marketing is a small amount compared to other colleges and universities.

“On a per-student basis, for-profit colleges outspend nonprofits (private colleges) more than 4 to 1 and outspend public institutions more than 20 to 1 — a pattern that has held steady over time,” wrote a 2020 report from the Brooking’s Institute. Community colleges spend less on average per-student than four-year institutions too, according to the same report.

California colleges say their advertising campaigns lead to more awareness, and they point to increased clicks and website traffic as evidence. What they don’t know is whether students who see a marketing campaign and click on a college website actually enroll. 

Statewide, community colleges lost nearly 20% of students between 2019 and 2021.

Ross said his district expects to see a near 10% enrollment increase this fall after losing more than 18% of its students during the pandemic. 

But he can’t say for sure whether the enrollment trends are a direct result of the district’s marketing blitz, which cost about $840,000 in each of the last two years. Before the pandemic, the marketing team spent between $200,000 and $600,000 per year, Ross said.

“People don’t make their college choices in the same way they decide where to have dinner tonight. It’s not just driving by a billboard. It’s a long game,” he said.

In San Diego, the pun-filled campaign is geared toward older and working students, who left the community college system at the highest rate. The idea came out of conversations with current students, who said they would respond best to an advertising campaign that was fun and local, according to  Jack Beresford, district spokesperson.

“It’s very different from what we’ve done before,” he said with a laugh. 

‘I can go to college’ 

With an influx of money, the chancellor’s office launched a new campaign — called “I can go to college” —  that it promoted on billboards at bus stations, over highways and at seven airports throughout California. TV commercials are planned for both men’s and women’s World Cup matches, and at local and community events around the state, there’s plenty of new swag, like water bottles and drawstring bags.  

Last fall, enrollment numbers increased for the first time since the pandemic began, and Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications, said the final enrollment estimates for spring 2023 look even stronger.

“We’re not saying marketing is responsible for all of that,” Feist said. With 116 colleges spread out across the state, many of which conduct their own marketing, “it’s very hard to track,” he said.

The California Community College Chancellor’s Office has spent more than $40 million in marketing since 2021, more than double what the office spent in the two years prior.

The website for the “I can go to college” marketing campaign has garnered over 335 million page views, including 115,000 clicks on the “Enroll Now” button that redirects to a college application. However, the chancellor’s office can’t currently tell whether a student who clicks on the button actually completes an application. Feist said it’s something that the office is looking into.

He said the money has also allowed the state chancellor’s office to expand its outreach, translating materials in languages including Vietnamese and Korean and targeting messages to certain communities. Instead of “I can go to college,” for example, the taglines on billboards near the state’s Native American reservations say: “I can give back to my tribe.”

Calls, texts and emails follow funding

While billboards and drone displays are easy to see, they only reflect a fraction of the marketing and outreach expenditures that community colleges have made to boost enrollment. Along with the state’s one-time grants for retention and enrollment, individual college districts have also allocated other COVID-19 relief money to call and text potential students, hire outreach staff, and run in-person events at high schools, food banks and other gathering places. 

These individualized approaches tend to have a clearer impact on enrollment, said Diane Walleser, acting CEO at Interact Communications, which has worked with nearly half the state’s community colleges and districts on marketing and recruitment.   

When meeting with colleges, Walleser and her team prefer to focus on the students who have already shown interest: those who apply to college but never show up, drop out after starting school, or enrolled in one semester but have yet to enroll in the subsequent one. 

Billboards are a “waste of money,” she said, especially if they are used in the wrong location or as the only recruitment method.

Using one of the pandemic relief grants available, the Los Rios Community College District hired 50 people to canvas the county and recruit students. The district also launched a comprehensive call center to answer questions from students and to reach out directly to those who showed an intent to enroll but never did. Those efforts complement the drones and billboards, Ross said. His goal is to “diversify” marketing strategies since no one tool is “singularly effective.” 

Many other colleges have created similar centers in the past few years, using a combination of calls, texts and emails to try to keep students in school.

But amidst the flurry of new funding and marketing efforts, Oleg Bespalov is worried that some well-intentioned interventions may have little or no impact. Bespalov, who is Moorpark College’s dean of institutional effectiveness, conducted an experiment with his school’s call center and found that people who did not receive a call were just as likely to enroll as those who did. 

However, when the college tried texting people and letting them respond to questions via text, there was a statistically significant difference in the number of people who enrolled as a result. 

“I would not say close down all your call centers,”  Bespalov said. “The largest thing I’m advocating for is the randomized control trials because otherwise you won’t really know if it works.” 

He said certain other factors —  like the turnaround time for when a student expresses interest in a college and when that student receives a call or text from that institution — can also affect the likelihood of enrollment.

It’s a practice that some for-profit colleges have already perfected. “The for-profits not only market more,” Walleser said. “They do next-day enrollment. They are really good on the servicing side of it. They get back to you within five or 10 minutes.”

She said for-profit colleges offer many flexible courses and make it easy to apply and enroll, which is especially appealing to older and working adults. 

“That’s the kind of standard that community colleges have to meet up with, and it’s tough because they have limited resources.”

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.