Image-makers reap the rewards as college battles for numbers intensify.
Colleges are spending up to Pounds 100,000 annually on sophisticated marketing campaigns to attract students in the toughest recruitment round yet this year.
Advertising agencies say further education institutions are now closing the gap with universities as they dedicate more of their budgets to marketing.
Poster blitzes on city centre advertising hoardings and bus sides are being backed up with television campaigns in some regions as colleges become increasingly skilled in targeting potential students.
Agencies report colleges outstripping their higher education counterparts in their understanding of their local market, with many armed with sophisticated data.
Jonathan Reay, a spokesman for the Rileys agency, said colleges were aware of travelling distances, demographic trends and even whether students in a particular area were prepared to walk up hill to get to college.
He said: "Colleges have a very small target area, usually just a 10 mile radius, and many really know what they are doing. We are seeing a move to greater professionalism, with marketing managers often drawn from commerce, where traditionally they were academics."
In Nottingham, where the agency has an office, every bus carried a college advertisement, he said. Mark Maddox, media director of education marketing firm Michael Bungey, said the agency's most "adventurous and creative marketing" was now in its 30 college accounts.
Its campaigns this year include street posters for the College of North East London showing a woman runner or a rollerblading youth with the slogan "Our courses are as individual as you are". The images, intended to reflect street style and aimed at 16-19-year-olds, are typical of the way colleges are beginning to move away from traditional conservative approaches.
Growing competition and continued pressure to expand has persuaded more colleges to turn to professional agencies and increase their marketing spending, Mr Maddox claimed. "Even small colleges may be spending up to Pounds 50,000 and others may go as far as double that. FE is definitely catching up with the universities."
Since little formal research has been carried out into FE marketing trends, much evidence is anecdotal, with agencies inevitably keen to promote their own role. The Austin Knight agency has picked up some 20 new accounts from FE colleges this year, taking its total to 50. The Rileys agency has 100 clients in the sector.
Many colleges say they are convinced of the value of investing cash in marketing, though some acknowledge they are forced into high spending by aggressive campaigns by neighbours.
Burnley College, which is now in the third year of a campaign centring on an image of Einstein, was an FE pioneer of more adventurous advertising, using the Michael Bungey agency.
This summer it has spent almost Pounds 10,000 on bus posters, newspaper advertisements and even beer mats. Marketing manager Tom Lemmon said: "People were suspicious at first, because in this northern town advertising is thought of as glitzy. But this year the recognition factor is definitely there and we can use the image as a shorthand for the college."
Richard West, marketing manager at the College of North East London, claimed enrolments were up as much as 20 per cent on the same period last year, with the poster blitz, backed up by more traditional newspaper advertisements, taking much of the credit. The college, which faces stiff competition from several neighbours, has spent around Pounds 100,000 this year on marketing, including prospectuses. But Mr West said: "Ultimately, the best advertising you can have is just doing things well as an institution."
Clarendon College's three-month recruitment campaign in the local press, radio and TV was linked with aggressively promoted bids for editorial coverage, said its marketing manager Linda Kiddey.
"Returns on editorial are immeasurably higher than advertising investments but then the two go hand-in-glove." Advertising accounted for about a third of recruitment from such promotion efforts.