Why Do Students Choose Two-Year Schools?

Carnegie Higher Ed Feb 27, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

We recently administered a survey to our CollegeXpress users to glean key insights about their college search process—including why they chose their college, how their college search process was overall, what social media networks they utilized, and more. With over 6,000 completed responses, students shared their successes, grievances, and opinions on just how we’re doing as higher education marketers. 

Through this survey, we were able to develop a thorough, information-packed report. This information is invaluable; it provides an incredible holistic view of hopeful college students’ perspectives. From the data gathered, we were able to isolate two-year institution data and see what the main drivers and draws were for students who were choosing two-year schools upon graduating from high school. I was also inspired and delighted to see that, compared to last year’s survey, community college, two-year, and vocational school choices increased by about 7%! 

I have the privilege of working with community colleges and technical schools at Carnegie Dartlet, and I’m in constant pursuit of solutions to bring my clients’ marketing to the next level. I find that there are various challenges these types of institutions face, including budgetary constraints, limited staff, diversified audiences, and more. These factors demand a very thoughtful, intentional, and integrated marketing plan. But what does that mean? What are the key factors that were important to students as they navigated this decision? Additionally, how do we continue to connect and engage with these types of students through all the noise and traffic along with the various other challenges mentioned above? 

What better way to find out than hearing from incoming two-year college students themselves and why they chose their path? The survey question we drew these responses for was: “What draws you to your top-choice school?” All the responses below pertain to high school juniors and seniors who are choosing to pursue a two-year college education.


The cost of higher education was a huge factor for students who ultimately selected a two-year school. Generally, a four-year college or university comes with a hefty price tag, yet in “Move Over, Millennials; Generation Z is Here,” Jonah and David Stillman point out that “67% of Generation Z indicate their top concern is being able to afford college.” When asked why they selected their two-year school, many students had money on their minds:

  • “Because of the price, it will be more affordable.”
  • “It’s an incredible gift to receive two years of quality education at such low prices.”
  • “Attending [anonymous community college] first to get an associate degree makes it easier to transfer to another four-year college. It also saves a lot of money.”
  • “I decided to go to community college the first two years. It saves money and will let me explore my interests at more affordable costs.”
  • “The financial situation they were willing to offer just made the most sense for the time and for my end goal.”
  • “I got a special scholarship where I get two years free of college.”

How can two-year schools continue to stay top-of-mind for money-conscious prospective students? Think about your marketing materials (e.g., your school’s website, paid search ads, direct mail pieces, etc.). Are you providing detailed information around cost and the various financial benefits associated with attending a two-year institution? If you offer additional opportunities to cut costs, is there readily accessible information for students to learn more? If not, this could be a huge missed opportunity. Students are looking for schools to be open and transparent about college costs, and this is where you can shine!


A continuing benefit for two-year institutions is their proximity to residential neighborhoods. Distance and location continue to be important factors as students make their school decisions. In fact, 35% of student respondents to our survey noted that a less-than-stellar campus location was a primary reason for why they chose not to apply to a school—even if it matched their other criteria. Here’s some direct feedback on the importance of location:

  • “It has multiple campuses across the state and there are quite a few that are very near to where I live now. The certain campus that I am interested in is only a short commute from my home, the campus is safe, it is clean and still a relatively small school.”
  • “It’s close by and my high school offers free schooling at [anonymous community college] if you meet the specific requirements, which I have.”
  • “The location from home to the school!”
  • “To stay in the area for the first year of college at a low cost.”
  • “Low cost to attend and I am able to live at home.”
  • “I like the area and the commute is easy. The campus is small yet big and easy to get around.”

Are you showcasing your convenient campus location? Do you have campaigns set up to ensure you’re getting out in front of the right local geos, ZIP Codes, high schools, and even households? With location being such a critical deciding factor for students attending two-year institutions, making sure you’re connecting with your neighboring audiences is crucial. There are so many ways to build brand awareness and affinity within these markets to include traditional marketing like billboards, in addition to digital marketing tactics, on-campus events, and more. You’re right in their backyard! Make sure they know who you are and what you have to offer.


This new generation of college hopefuls has heard the trials and tribulations of millennial college grads with high debt, difficulty finding jobs or reasonable salaries, and in some cases, not even pursuing the career they invested so much time and money into. 

Gen Z craves flexibility. Many high school students haven’t made up their minds about what career path they want to set out on—and it can be intimidating to have to do so when they start their higher education. Not to mention, a bulk of students have other priorities and obligations. Frankly, they’re busy. They need an institution that understands and respects their eclectic interests and ventures. Again, this creates a prime opportunity for two-year schools, which often offer flexible solutions to their education. This environment fosters a feeling of relief for students who don’t have it all “figured out” just yet. Some student feedback we received that pertains to this includes:

  • “It gave me the best scholarship and I don’t feel any pressure about already knowing what to major in.”
  • “The school mainly offers two-year degrees and I like that because I can always work my way up in my career field and earn another degree after graduating.”
  • “I haven’t completely decided on the program, that is why I chose two schools.”
  • “It is in my town, I can get prerequisites, and figure out what I want to do. It’s a perfect fit for me.”
  • “In my situation, slowly transitioning from high school to college is going to be the best way to go. Moreover, to slowly transition to adulthood, with the help of my parents.”
  • “Its cost and location are just what I’m looking for while maintaining my job and family close to me.”
  • “I don’t know what I want to major in so I’m taking classes at [anonymous community college] to get my generals done and figure out what I want to major in.”

The flexibility of being able to work, go to school, and manage endless responsibilities is imperative for some students, and most two-year institutions are able to provide just that! Make sure your marketing materials say so. 


Two-year institutions offer amazing programs that are accessible to students of all ages and stages of their lives. People often seek educational options for a career pivot, but they don’t want to uproot their entire life and go back to school for four-plus years. The opportunities offered by two-year schools are truly unmatched when considering price, time spent, and graduate outcomes. What’s more, technical colleges offer excellent education in trades that can jump-start or continually improve a great career!

Here’s what the students have to say:

  • “I heard they have one of the best nursing programs and it is cheaper.”
  • “Leader in intended major.”
  • “The class size and results of their nursing program.”
  • “The equipment for my major.”
  • “Since they had the major I wanted and from being close to where I live.”
  • “It is a great school with a great program for my major and has a great location.”
  •  “Offered desired program.”
  •  “Because of Radiology.”
  •  “They had an occupational therapy assistant program.”
  • “Good tuition and great nursing program.”
  • “It’s small and it has a good music department.”
  • “One of the best educations for nursing.”

With that being said: are you appearing in searches while students are conducting research on specific programs or certificates? Make sure your program pages are up to snuff.


Influencers are everywhere. They’re on Instagram, Tik Tok, YouTube, and every other social platform there is. However, other people are influencing high school students when it comes to college decisions: their friends, family, teachers, and counselors. 

These “influential” people are key players in whether a prospect chooses to go to a two-year institution. Here’s some feedback we received on what types of influence others had on this decision:

  • “My whole family has gone to this institution.”
  • “The teachers at my high school convinced me to go.”
  • “It’s affordable and close to home. I have friends attending the same institution. It will prepare me for university in a couple years.”
  • “My family and counselor.”

How can you tap into these influencers? Think about your messaging. There are audiences other than prospective students to consider, and they play an important role in this process. Is your outreach segmented to reach these various audiences? It’s important for them to know your story and your offerings as well. There are many strategies to get relevant, timely messaging out to key stakeholders and influencers that will further push along your efforts.

Acceptance and recognition

When asked what made students not apply to certain schools, numerous responses mentioned acceptance rate and that they “wouldn’t have gotten in.” Students like this may be discouraged by competitive acceptance rates and a fear of rejection from four-year schools, and are instead seeking a school that not only accepts them but wants them to attend.

Many students expressed this need for an overall feeling of recognition. From my own professional and personal experience, I can corroborate the presence of a sense of belonging on two-year college campuses. Community and technical colleges offer incredible opportunities for people from all walks of life, at all different stages of their career, and with all different backgrounds and upbringings. All are welcomed with open arms, often providing a valuable opportunity they may not have initially felt was in the cards for them. 

Two-year schools have an incredible layer of support that can be life-changing in a student’s journey. Many of these institutions have great resources, staff, tutoring, and other tools that commit to student success and go above and beyond providing a diploma. They provide commitment, compassion, and a supportive community. There’s an overall sentiment of “this school has my back.” Students don’t want to feel like they’re just a tuition payment or a number—that feeling of recognition is something schools need to harness to foster deep connections with their students. 

Students also want to know your institution’s personality and be able to feel it while they’re on campus, in the classroom, or browsing your website. Being authentic and open about the core values and mission of your institution is critical to reach and connect with students. It’s not just about logistics such as cost and location (as much as those are important to students as well), but also to foster a deep and sincere exchange with students and acting as a supportive, trusting, and encouraging friend. In turn, you can successfully build a campus of students and alumni who go on to become unofficial “brand ambassadors” for your school. 


The factors above should be top of mind when developing any type of communication plan to students, parents, and any other relevant audiences. Put yourself in their shoes, and tailor your marketing toward their needs and expectations. Two-year institutions have a lot of great benefits and opportunities to share, but prospective students won’t know about them unless you market yourself intelligently and authentically.

If you’d like to discuss more about two-year college marketing and ways you can connect with prospective students and influencers, reach out to us. Also, feel free to continue the conversation on Twitter at @marietoohey.

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