Career Colleges Employing Unorthodox Marketing Tactics

On January 29th, 2009, one of Canada’s flagship newspapers published a somewhat prophetic story. That story was designed to put students (and potential students) of community and career colleges at ease regarding concerns over how the autumn 2008 “recession crisis” would affect their studies – and them – financially.

The article was a question and answer-type ‘session’ in the Globe and Mail, and was authored (in part) by “guest writer” Alex Usher: identified as the Director of Educational Policy Institute Canada. In the piece, Mr. Usher stated “many are looking to higher education for a brighter future” in light of the sudden increase in unemployment due to layoffs (‘convenient’ downsizing) or outright job evaporation (outright closure). Students from across Canada were invited to participate in an open, online Forum (hosted by the Globe and Mail newspaper’s interactive portion of their website), and the results of the question and answer session were summarily published.

It certainly was an interesting discussion. Mr. Usher, while valiantly attempting to assuage the fears of many students (most of who were already enrolled in a degree or diploma program), also made some hard-hitting, grave statements in regards to the financial realities facing Universities, Community Colleges and Private Career Colleges alike. Without going into a tremendous amount of detail, it was Mr. Usher’s belief that while “cutting costs will not be the first instinct”, putting additional pressure on the Federal and Provincial governments to either increase grants or allow for higher tuition fees would be followed by decrees of “there’s no new money, so muddle through as best you can with very small tuition increases.” In addition to demurring or taking an education guess as to how each institution would cope with these constraints, Mr. Usher seemed to predict that all higher education facilities alike were likely facing decreasing student populations, higher tuition costs and hard financial decisions for “at least five years.”

As outlined above, that online Forum discussion took place months ago (and it should be noted was held during the height of a bitter and protracted strike by educators and assistants at York University in Toronto). North America has “evolved” since that time: From a heightened sense of collective hope with the election of President Barack Obama in the United States, and the sense of relief to Canada’s emerging relatively unscathed from the 2008 financial crisis; to the deteriorating confidence and disillusionment in the Obama administration south of the border and the global financial uncertainty surrounding the literal bankruptcy of certain central European nations. The effect on the higher education system – in both Canada and the United States – has been quietly remarkable. There is an almost subtle desperation in the way that Universities and Colleges are going about trying to raise enrolments – and thereby raise their ever-trickling away revenues.

In Canada’s largest city (Toronto), one cannot simply walk down the street it seems, without encountering the latest in a seemingly unending string of educational institution enticements in the way of stereotypical, derivative advertisements. Each one of these uninspired, mediocre and sometimes even vapid graphical pleas more or less virtually parrots their own competition. The message has tended to be precisely the same – whether the program being offered is as short as a Personal Support Worker diploma or as long as an MBA – regardless of which school has purchased prime advertising tenements along Toronto’s hyper-busy subway and transit systems, commuter thoroughfares and pedestrian walkways. For close to two years, now, continuing education advertisements have featured repetitive, “cookie cutter” images of mature students and eager young hopefuls alike, each allegedly extolling the virtues of the portrayed University or College. Some of these advertisements have even featured the exact same (obvious) student image – even though the institutions themselves are quite apparently in direct competition with each other, and therefore completely unrelated and unallied.

Despite the best advertising efforts of these schools, from the massive federal universities like York, Western Ontario and the University of Toronto on down to the smallest community and/or private college such as Centennial, Seneca, Humber or even BizTech Institute, enrolments continued to drop at an alarming rate. Due, in part, to the massive influx of Government (E.I.) Second Career applicants and the agonizingly slow process of processing them all as well as the aforementioned raise in tuition prices, it should be mentioned. If Ontario’s post-secondary institutions were going to continue to grow (let alone merely survive in some cases), clearly more aggressive, if not revolutionary recruitment tactics had to be employed.

Unfortunately, what has followed has been a nearly ridiculous, if not outright laughable, series of overtly unorthodox, atypical – and downright weird – marketing ploys by some seemingly respectable schools in their efforts to entice potential students. Everything from offering $500.00 “scholarships” for purchasing pizza, to what amounts to “perpetual study vacations” within a tropical island setting have been utilized as “legitimate” marketing vehicles for some continuing education establishments recruiting in Ontario. While it is true that certain large food corporations do, in fact, have extremely attractive scholarship programs available to potential post-secondary students, the application process is a little more involved than merely receiving a “guaranteed note” in exchange for the purchase of a pie. Yum! Brands, the mega-corporation that owns KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut franchising monster and Canada’s Boston Pizza, to name the two largest and most visible examples, have been offering fairly attractive scholarships (to their employees and, in some cases, immediate family members) for years but have stopped short at allying themselves via the way of a blanket “voucher” with any one identifiable institution.

Many long-established community colleges, throughout Canada and the United States, have been exploiting the meteoric interest, and near demand, in popular culture-related industries and offering seemingly lucrative opportunities (at reduced tuition, of course) to study, for instance, as music or recording engineers, or chefs. The Culinary Arts program at George Brown College in Toronto’s downtown core is one of the rare exceptions: their respected and modern Culinary Skills diploma program is highly in demand and prospective students can expect to be placed on a six-month wait-list before being invited to commence studies. However, similar programs at George Brown that are directly related to their professional Culinary Arts and/or Hospitality and Tourism programs (Hospitality Management, Food and Nutrition Management, for example) are attempting new initiatives in the competition to register students. Even a tried and true, near-or-above chair capacity program such as Sheridan College’s Film School (or the equally prestigious Toronto Film School, which just opened a new location within the city’s central core) has joined the fray of daily advertisers that can be found within the city’s free daily commuter newspapers.

Very obviously, then, the competition between Ontario’s post secondary institutions is fierce, and said competition doesn’t just extend to the various universities and major colleges. The private career colleges – from film schools to health care and business schools alike – are virtually all locked in a daily war of printed words, each trying to secure rising enrollments. While Canada (and especially Ontario) has come through the latest recession scare almost unscathed, the uncertainty surrounding the job market has resulted in a number of recent graduates and mature students alike seriously contemplating a complete overhaul in their careers. The Government of Ontario’s Second Career re-training program has been a veritable boon for those recently unemployed, and who have given serious consideration to expanding their future job opportunities by training (or re-training) for employment in a wholly new field of expertise. As outlined above, some of those enticements towards these “second career” students have run the promotions gamut from the outright bizarre (“Buy pizza and we’ll give you a bursary!”) to the almost pathetically desperate (“Study in a tropical location and be virtually on vacation!”).

Smaller schools, like the aforementioned BizTech Institute, have preferred to relay on considerably less ‘understated’ marketing methods in the effort to convince prospective students to sign on with them. For example, BizTech Institute has developed, in a very short period of time, a solid reputation as an exceptional Business School – and the Institute offers a revolutionary, truly unique Diploma course in becoming a certified Payroll Compliance Practitioner, as an example. For students who may wish to be actually “on the job” within a few short weeks, this particular program (while giving a good ‘general instruction’ on overall Accounting procedures) can have graduates job-ready as a certified PCP (Payroll Compliance Practitioner) in 18 weeks. The full Accounting, Bookkeeping and Payroll Administration program at BizTech Institute, by comparison, takes twice the commitment (36 weeks). Another of these short programs is the popular Personal Support Worker training program (24 weeks), which features a much smaller, more intimate and hands-on learning environment than most programs offered at larger colleges. Rather than rely on (what amounts to) marketing trickery, BizTech Institute is advertising these two programs in particular for approximately half the normal price of tuition. Their Personal Support Worker and Payroll Compliance Practitioner courses are undoubtedly affordable and attainable, then, for anyone with the desire to embark upon a second career.

It’s a simple approach, and one designed to address an immediate need: many of the PSW (Personal Support Worker) programs at other colleges, for instance, have full classrooms and have placed new enrollments on lengthy waiting lists. In the case of Payroll practitioners, it’s also a simple matter of need, but in a far different way. There is a dearth of qualified payroll practitioners in Ontario, and the BizTech Institute diploma program aims to try and alleviate that issue by training more professionally qualified workers. No pizza, no vacations – just straight-forward, aggressive and old fashioned price rollbacks on in-demand diploma programs.

The end result has yet to be seen. Only time will tell which approach (if any, in this uncertain economic time) will ultimately prove to be the most successful at attracting new students. In this competition for student enrollments, however, perhaps the old adage about “keeping it simple” may prove to be the best solution, though. It just seems to make common sense, after all. In other words, which student wouldn’t rather save hundreds of dollars by taking advantage of a half-price tuition program at a quality, reputable college – and put that saved money to better use, like buying books, supplies and yes, even pizza – than utilize what amounts to a ‘coupon’ (masquerading as a ‘bursary’) in exchange for a one-time purchase of their favorite pie? You surely don’t need to be a college graduate to figure out which educational offer contains the actual highest, and best, value.