For many FE colleges, the summer brings an avalanche of literature and advertising, and in thousands of homes brochures herald the annual recruitment drive to part-time courses in the autumn term. But some institutions are beginning to explore new ways of attracting this mass market.
Middlesbrough College on Teeside is one of those which took a bold decision earlier this year to abandon a blanket marketing approach which has traditionally targeted some 200,000 households. Instead, the college used a local marketing consultancy to look at the profile of its part-time students and identify - by age, lifestyle, leisure pursuits and postcodes - their best potential students.
The college's director of marketing and recruitment, Karen Joyce, says:
"Along with most other colleges we have always opted for blanket coverage - but we were persuaded that we could get a better return for our money with this new approach.
"Part-time education is a growing trend, drawing students from a variety of backgrounds - and for many reasons. So the market is difficult to define.
That's why we wanted to examine our student data - to help us make more informed decisions about how best to allocate our marketing budget."
The college worked with Rocket Science, a local Teeside firm whose clientele is usually drawn from the private sector, often from spheres such as the car industry and heavy plant hire.
Company director Vaughan Lonsdale says: "We saw the college having to behave like a business in the marketplace, so we proposed that they could reduce their recruitment cost per head by profiling their adult part-time market."
Using the college's database for part-time students, the firm tried to identify key characteristics to indicate the most likely customers by looking at factors such as age, income, family grouping and lifestyle.
"The highest score obtained was for young, childless, blue-collar workers, who were mainly living in terraced housing," says Mr Lonsdale. "Clearly, these were people for whom things hadn't worked out at school. They had realised that they wanted to do better for themselves, and had taken the decision to go back into education part-time.
"We were able to offer the college confirmation of valuable information which the college had known only anecdotally.
"In determining the full range of key potential customers, the company applied its findings to a list of 12 prime post-coded areas alongside further sub-prime postcodes. The results gave us 12 key areas to target with our part-time prospectus and reduced the college's door-to-door mailshot from about 200,000 to some 95,000."
The profile also pinpointed areas where a mailshot might be less successful economically, yet still worthwhile in terms of attracting students from hard-to-reach audiences. Initial indications are that the strategy has paid off as statistics show a one-third rise in applications for part-time courses.
Ms Joyce said: "We think it has worked. Enrolments are significantly up on last year. We have changed our fee structure as well, so we are being cautious about results. It is hard to say whether the rise is solely down to the new approach, but it has certainly been a contributory factor - the change in enrolments is too dramatic for it not to have been."
In particular, the college has seen a big rise in enrolments to courses linked to the construction industry, although Ms Joyce admits that some of the interest may have been spurred by national publicity earlier this year related to shortages in plumbing and associated trades.
"A lot of people are employed in low-paid jobs with low career prospects," she says. "They are already in employment, and now seeking a change through part-time study.
"It is an important source of students for this college because, for instance, a student enrolling on a part-time course to become a plumber is committing to a three-year period of study."
Ms Joyce believes that the use of market profiling will not deflect the college from trying to attract students from other hard-to-reach backgrounds.
"We are very much about being inclusive, about trying to attract all members of society," she says. "The new approach is helping us to be more cost-effective in our marketing.
"It will help release money for other strategies to target hard-to-reach areas - and attract, for instance, those who need help with basic skills.
It is releasing money so we can prioritise elsewhere."