October 2017

Modern Community College Students and Why Brands Should be Marketing to Them


According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 12 million students – nearly half  of all U.S. undergraduates – attend the 1,100 community colleges in the U.S. With their flexibility and affordability for both recent high school graduates and adult learners, the growth of community college enrollment shows no sign of slowing down. For brands that are already targeting traditional college students – and even some that are not – today’s community college students are an untapped market.

To gain a better understanding of the modern community college student, Fuse surveyed a statistically valid sample of U.S. community college students during the Summer of 2017. The research focused on their daily lives, habits, and buying behavior to identify opportunities for brands to offer products and services aimed at satisfying their needs.

The Rise of Community Colleges

For decades, American culture has emphasized the importance and long-term benefits of attending a four-year college or university. Enrollment at a traditional, residential college or university has been viewed as the most promising option for receiving the best education and job opportunities. But during the last twenty years, the expense and rigidity of four-year institutions have become obstacles for many aspiring college students.

Whereas in the past community college students often carried the stigma of having under-performed in high school, today’s community colleges are viewed as a viable option even for recent high school graduates with good grades and SAT scores. In addition to recent high school graduates, community colleges are seeing growth from full-time employees seeking specialized degrees and students pursuing a vocational path.

Surprising Facts about Modern Community College Students

Brands that may have not have considered targeting community college students should know:

  • Women account for nearly 60% of community college enrollment
  • Community college students are often their family’s “first generation” to attend college
  • Single parents, veterans, and the disabled are among key segments
  • The average age of a community college student is 28 years old and nearly 15% of community college students are over 40 years old
  • Community college student life has more similarities to traditional college life than you might expect – over a quarter of public community colleges offer on-campus housing

The Cost of a Community College Education: A Key Driver of Growth

One of the most significant benefits of community college is affordability. The average cost of a traditional college education is about $23,000 per year for a public in-state university, $37,000 per year for a public out-of-state university, and $46,000 per year for a private university. In comparison, community colleges cost about $16,000 per year.

Not only is the total cost of a college education a major concern for today’s students, but so is mitigating debt post-graduation. With their flexible class schedules that make it easier for students to work while in school, 22% of community college students are employed full-time and 40% work part-time.

Business Sectors with Big Opportunities

Groceries, Meal Prep and Dining Out

Balancing school, work, and family, doesn’t allow community college students to grocery shop in-store or prepare most meals themselves. These students are using any means available to save time when it comes to meals.

  • 40% of community college students prefer the ease of grocery delivery (versus about 25% of the general population)
  • Less than half of all respondents purchased fresh food in the previous week and most bought packaged food items
  • 46% of community college students dine out 1-3 times week

With over 90% of community colleges nationwide offering online degree programs, community college students take more classes online than their traditional college counterparts and are tech savvy.

  • To complete their coursework, they spend 4 hours per day on laptops, tablets, or using technology at their community college library
  • Nearly 20% of community college students indicate they are actively shopping for a new mobile phone
  • About one-quarter of respondents plan to purchase a laptop or tablet this year

Finding time to exercise is an on-going challenge for community college students. Only 18% find time to exercise on a daily basis and only about 20% of community college students are achieving the physical activity recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, about 50% of traditional four-year college students meet the CDC’s exercise recommendations. Community college students indicate a desire to exercise and are looking for products and services that will get and keep them on track.

  • 35% want to incorporate wearable technology into their daily lives
  • Almost 50% are interested in a gym membership or formal fitness plan
  • Over 60% plan to purchase fitness apparel and/or footwear in the coming months


With 12 million students attending community colleges in the U.S., students at these institutions represent an untapped market for brands. Fuse’s research into their daily lives identified opportunities, particularly with regard to meal preparation, technology and fitness. Brands that can offer products and services aimed at satisfying those and other needs will be well-positioned to succeed with these consumers.