A volatile economy, rising tuition costs, fear of student-debt, and mounting uncertainty around the “worth” of a college education have made recruiting and retaining students extremely challenging over the last several years.
Small institutions, with their predominant reliance on tuition to cover operating costs, are particularly vulnerable to cash flow problems, high debt, and bankruptcy.
And if you’re a small liberal arts college? You’ll also have to contend with students’ growing preoccupation with educational “ROI,” which tends to steer them toward career-oriented programs that track directly to “in demand” jobs right after graduation.
Many small colleges respond by trying to compete with larger institutions, copying their marketing tactics, and skimming over the size issue altogether – instead of leveraging it to their full advantage.
In this post, we’ll look at small (mostly liberal arts) colleges who take a different, more strategic approach, effectively setting themselves apart as uniquely desirable because of their small size (rather than in spite of it).
Focussing predominantly on website content (your most valuable channel for student recruitment), we’ll highlight six key angles small colleges can use to play to their strengths, stand out from competitors, and attract today’s value-conscious student.
1. Declare Your “Small Size Advantage” Up Front on Your Homepage
Even if visitors don’t land directly on your homepage, they’ll quickly end up there during their exploratory, information-gathering process. Prospective students and parents will use your homepage, not just to orient themselves and survey their navigational options, but to catch a glimpse of your character as a school – the values and attributes that best represent your mission as a place of learning.
For smaller schools, this means tackling the issue of size head-on. Use this introductory space to deliver a unique “small size advantage” proposition that will resonate with the specific audiences you’re hoping to attract.
Here’s a great example from College of the Atlantic. Every element of this homepage works together to articulate a clear brand identity, and emphasize the advantages of keeping things small. “Welcoming,” “personalized,” “forward-thinking,” “selective,” “intriguing,” “intelligent,” “collaborative,” “specialized,” “inspiring” … these are just a few of the key terms that come to mind when I see this homepage:
College of the Atlantic has successfully deployed many of the content tactics outlined in this post, so we’ll return to them again for examples and best practices. But in the meantime, let’s look at how Shimer College (a school with under 200 students) really nails this next pillar of small-school promotion.
2. Showcase Students’ Political Clout at Your School
Big universities run like large corporations, with a top-down decision-making process that rarely relies on direct student input. Small schools, on the other hand, are uniquely equipped to flip that paradigm by making students an integral part of governance.
Shimer College takes this notion to the next level by making student political involvement absolutely central to its promotional messaging, brand identity, and educational approach. Here’s a look at the college’s “How it Works” section where this democratic philosophy is outlined:
Not every small school must include students in administration, marketing, and policy-making – but it is definitely wise to highlight how choosing to remain small opens many doors for students to assert themselves, be seen and heard, and affect meaningful change.
Reassuring prospects that they will never be anonymous or get lost in the shuffle should be a key theme of your content strategy for student recruitment. As should important benefits of student-college collaboration, such as:
- Hands-on experience learning how to run an institution
- Discovering what it takes to negotiate and lead
- Learning how to build and maintain productive working relationships
- Understanding how to affect real change within an institutional context
3. Resolve Doubts Around Availability of Campus Resources
We’ll stay with Shimer College for a moment to illustrate how small schools can reassure prospective students that while the campus may be small, they will still have access to the latest technology and research facilities.
Small institutions typically forge partnerships with other schools or community organizations to ensure students have the wide range of resources they need to conduct research and grow as learners.
For Shimer, this means highlighting that their campus is in fact situated on the grounds of a larger institution – the Illinois Institute of Technology. Shimer does a good job of reinforcing the advantages of this arrangement, such as the sustainable sharing of facilities, and students’ freedom to take classes from both institutions.
The college addresses this issue up front on their website (there’s a link on their main navigation about the campus-sharing arrangement), ensuring prospects that “small” doesn’t mean limited:
Pomona University in California takes a similar approach, highlighting its inter-collegiate agreement and campus-sharing with four other colleges (a collective known as the Claremont Colleges). Their website is careful to explain precisely how students at Pomona benefit from this arrangement with access to courses at each partner school, as well as libraries and other campus resources.
The bottom line is that in order to reassure parents and students, smaller schools must highlight access to resources and facilities on their website – their most important and persuasive tool for student recruitment. With larger institutions constantly luring applicants with shiny new facilities (dorms, sports complexes, performing arts centers, science research centers, etc.) it’s vital that smaller colleges make it clear that their students won’t be left wanting for learning resources.
4. Illustrate the Depth of Student-centered, Personalized Learning
Almost every university and college out there, regardless of size, makes claims around student-centered, personalized learning. The difference with small schools is that they can actually substantiate those claims in deep and meaningful ways.
Highlighting comparatively tiny class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios is a great start, but so is showcasing opportunities students have to forge supportive relationships with instructors and administration. And the chances they’ll have to participate in class discussions, truly connect with their peers, and feel invested in their school community.
These are considerable advantages for smaller colleges, particularly as customization and personalized attention grow increasingly important to prospective students. It is intuitive that vibrant, thoughtful illustrations of your student-centered culture should be at the core of your content strategy and development.
Here’s a nice example from the Art Academy of Cincinnati, one of the smallest four-year art colleges in the United States. This is a shot from their Instagram account, showing a tiny class of students on an “urban field trip” with their professor. Authentic, intimate, distinctly un-institutional – and clearly not something a giant undergraduate class of 100 would get to do:
Moving to the middle of the US map we find Sterling College in Kansas, a school that has enlisted students to produce YouTube videos about how the personalized learning environment helps them thrive. Short, sweet, and genuine: here’s a look:
And now we return to Shimer again to appreciate the sharp contrast they draw between their own highly personalized admissions process, and the more generic methods some bigger schools use to sift through applicants. Like Sterling, they’re happy to let students speak for the school, and the result is both entertaining and effective. Two undergrads host this video on Facebook, poking fun at mainstream application essay topics – like this random “take a risk” prompt from Notre Dame.
Why have I mentioned Shimer so often in this post? Because in many ways, it exemplifies the fiercely proud and defiant small school identity that has helped many non-traditional colleges overcome tough times. Don’t forget, this is the college that once found itself ranked the number one worst school in America. And who came out to speak in Shimer’s defence? Its students and alumni. Many of them.
They spoke of Shimer’s distinctly student-centered culture, the rich knowledge and character-building experiences they gained in those tiny classes, and how they felt truly understood and welcomed within its close-knit scholarly community.
Shimer’s student testimonials were so heartfelt, they attracted the attention of The Guardian whose subsequent investigation helped reveal just how progressive and beloved this school really is (and largely misunderstood by critics).
Since then, Shimer has focussed on enhancing its web presence, and has managed to stem fallout from the disastrous ranking results. Most recently, North Central College (also in Illinois) announced plans to merge with Shimer, effectively “acquiring” the school while preserving its distinct Shimerian brand. Shimer president Dr. Susan E. Henking says “Shimer is thrilled to have this opportunity to sustain our mission in a new context…”
All this to say that cultivating and widely promoting a deep sense of community, belonging, and personalized support is something small schools can really excel at – and leverage to sustain their wellbeing and attract a new generation of students.
5. Articulate Key Messages that Play to Your Small School Advantage
Because small schools often target highly niche audiences, its important for them to clarify a mission and set of values that will resonate with that audience and motivate enrollment. These key messages should be persuasively packaged and presented on the college website, and echoed consistently across all other recruitment channels. These sentiments will distill your uniquely attractive small school identity, while making it clear how your target audience will benefit from joining your community.
We’ll re-visit College of the Atlantic to view a very well-executed articulation of key messages on their About Us page. Here you have, all in one place, a clear representation of the COA identity and top reasons to select this unique college (which by the way, offers only one major: a Bachelor of Arts in Human Ecology):
College of the Atlantic’s promotional strategy and innovative educational approach has certainly served it well. It ranks among the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the US, and holds the #11 spot for “best value.”
COA has also snagged top honors in categories such as “most beautiful campus,” “beloved by students,” “best quality of life,” and “greenest college in America.” It has built a widely recognized, credible, attractive brand that can rival a “big” school any day of the week.
6. Reserve a Special Website Section for Accolades & Success Stories
Speaking of top honors and positive ranking results – it’s vital to showcase these prominently on your website, in a dedicated section that prospective students can browse through while researching your institution and programs.
This is best practice for any educational institution or program, but truly crucial for a smaller school with less “brand prestige” than a big ticket school.
Smaller schools may have to work a little harder to prove their legitimacy and “ROI” to prospective students, who want to ensure the institution they select can successfully prepare them for graduate school and a competitive job market.
Here’s another strong example from College of the Atlantic, who makes its Rankings & Accolades section impossible to miss by linking to it from the homepage:
And here’s the page itself, which includes testimonials from students, high praise from prestigious reviewers, and a long list of top rankings:
And if your small school hasn’t yet collected top reviews or star rankings? Use this section to present the success stories of your graduates, the number of your students who gain admission into top graduate programs, and stories of how your unique educational environment helps current students grow and thrive. Above all, this section should reassure visitors of your legitimacy and inspire next steps toward enrollment (so don’t forget to include a Request Info form to prompt inquiries while the iron’s hot!)
What steps has your small college taken to assert a unique brand identity that resonates with prospective students? What do you think is most important to remember when promoting a small school? We welcome your questions and insights in the section below.