Higher ed’s rural appeal

Small, rural schools make their case with unique programs, employment outcomes and Mother Nature
By: | Issue: April, 2017
March 16, 2017
In its recruiting efforts, Green Mountain College in Vermont looks for students concerned about environmental issues and others who will thrive on a rural campus.In its recruiting efforts, Green Mountain College in Vermont looks for students concerned about environmental issues and others who will thrive on a rural campus.

Leaders at Marlboro College hope to increase enrollment by 50 percent. At a university such as Ohio State, this would mean adding the population of a small city along with rows of new residence halls and high-tech classrooms.

But at Marlboro—with its summer-camp like-campus nestled into the mountains of southern Vermont—that means adding just 100 students.

The strategy? Honesty, for one thing: Considering students will deal with snow and chilly New England weather during the school year, Marlboro switched its annual campus visit day from the spring to the dead of winter, Dean of Admissions Brigid Lawler says.

“It shows them that if you come here, you will ice skate, you will snowshoe, you will cross-country ski,” Lawler says. “It highlights how important it is to get out into the weather, rather than tucking yourself into a cozy little cave.”

It’s not all about acclimating to the elements, of course. Marlboro, where enrollment is trending upward, recently launched its Beautiful Minds program. Applicants create artistic, musical or written presentations about community service they’ve performed.

The 25 winners receive an all-expenses-paid, four-day visit to the school. “These programs are designed to find those needles in a haystack,” Lawler says. “We know there are Marlboro kids out there, but it can be hard to find them.”

This challenge confronts admissions officers at most small and rural colleges—and many institutions are tackling it in creative ways.

Unique enrollment enticements

Attracting students isn’t ALL about reams of outcome data and expensive, specialized degree programs for small colleges and universities. Many of these institutions add a quirky, personal touch in their recruitment and retention efforts:

  • Centre College (Ky.) has visitors tour the region’s distinctive attractions, including a Shaker village, a bourbon distillery and a horse track.
  • Green Mountain College (Vt.) sends admitted students a maple seed to plant on campus during orientation, to symbolize the beginning of their higher ed journey.
  • Peru State College (Neb.) launched “Tours & Tailgate” to encourage prospective students and families to visit on football game days. Before-game festivities include a campus tour and barbecue.

Faith in the liberal arts restored

Despite the optimism inherent in recruitment efforts at Marlboro and elsewhere, the headwinds buffeting small colleges and universities remain formidable.

Many presidents find themselves battling the perception—held by an increasing number of families—that a liberal arts education no longer promises a successful career, says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Small and rural colleges must respond with facts and data, from institutions such as the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University (D.C.). “We’re constantly combating myths,” Ekman says. “We have to make it clear that liberal arts majors and graduates of small colleges have terrific employment prospects.”

Free-tuition programs, such as the initiative recently proposed in New York, present another threat that will likely spread to more states, says Jim Black, a co-founder of the National Small College Enrollment Conference.

To respond, small liberal arts colleges must prove to students and families that graduates will leave with academic expertise—and the problem-solving and communications skills that will enable them find jobs, says Black, who is also CEO of SEM Works, a North Carolina-based enrollment consulting firm.

“Leaders need to create that value proposition, not only for the college, but also at the program level,” he says. “They have to answer ‘Why take biology or history here? What are the benefits and outcomes that are different than what a student might get at a larger, four-year public university?’”

Centre College touts an extensive study abroad program to attract students to its small rural campus in Kentucky.

Centre College touts an extensive study abroad program to attract students to its small rural campus in Kentucky.

To make that case, St. Lawrence University—located in New York near the Canadian border—launched a double major that combines liberal arts instruction with a focus on business skills such as writing and public speaking, says Melissa Richards, the vice president for communications.

A student can major in ‘business in the liberal arts’ along with another major, such as history or chemistry. “It’s about using the core skills you gain from a liberal arts education in a more practical sense,” says Richards, adding that St. Lawrence has been able to maintain its target enrollment of around 2,400 students.

Thomas College, home to 850 students on its campus in Maine, offers graduates a career guarantee. About 90 percent of first-year students sign a contract pledging to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average, to perform community service and to meet with college career services regularly.

If a student doesn’t find a job shortly after graduation, the college will repay student loans for up to a year. The students can also return to campus to start work on a master’s or second bachelor’s degree, at no charge.

Since launching the guarantee, applications and enrollment have increased, says Jonathan D. Kent, the vice president for enrollment management.

Ski school strategy

Colleges must look at their strengths, and make sure those programs stand out in their recruitment efforts. “When you look at similar colleges, and one’s thriving, and one isn’t, the difference is in leadership and the ways the college understands its distinctive strengths,” Ekman says.

Some of those strengths can be found outside the classroom. Adrian College in Michigan promotes its bass fishing team, a recognized NCAA sport. Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia organizes an annual summer folk festival that gets its name out among potential students, he says.

Green Mountain College, which enrolls about 775 students, leverages its home in the heart of Vermont ski country to offer a highly-specialized career program: an accelerated, three-year resort-and-hospitality management school with nearby Killington Ski Resort.

Students earn salaries for working at the resort and often earn jobs in the ski industry right after graduation, says Karen Martinsen Fleming, the college’s chief marketing officer.

Filling programs relies on more strategic recruiting of students who are truly interested in the college’s mission. In the past, the college had retention problems with admitted students who didn’t connect with the campus’ focus on sustainability, Fleming adds.

At college fairs and meetings with high school counselors, recruiters now try to identify students who are concerned about environmental issues and will thrive on a rural campus. Looking ahead to 2017-18, the college expects to yield its highest undergrad class in five years, she says.

Black, of the small college recruitment conference, says too many schools don’t make a strong enough sales pitch on their websites, which are now more influential than high school counselors. Despite compelling photos and descriptive language, most homepages focus too heavily on the application process, Black says.

“With high school students, you have a market-savvy skeptical audience,” he says. “You’ve got to have proof points like student testimonials and factoids about how many graduates are employed within six months and alumni success stories.”

Unique enrollment enticements (cont.)

Attracting students isn’t ALL about reams of outcome data and expensive, specialized degree programs for small colleges and universities. Many of these institutions add a quirky, personal touch in their recruitment and retention efforts:

  • St. Lawrence College (N.Y.) still sends paper acceptance letters so students can frame them.
  • Thomas College (Maine) touts how it helps its seniors polish their networking skills by offering free golf lessons at a course near campus.

Campus-visit clinchers

Many small institutions continue to rely on the tried-and-true campus visit to win students over. Bob Nesmith, dean of admissions and financial aid at Centre College, admits his institution has to overcome the less-than-flattering impressions some students have of rural campuses and of higher education in Kentucky.

“It’s a very hard thing to go into cities and suburbs and say to students ‘You should come to college in a little town—a little town in a mostly rural state with a bad image problem and that’s not known for education,’ ” Nesmith says.

Students who visit find the nearby town of Danville, which boasts coffee shops and restaurants, among other amenities. “They see their college experience won’t be as dependent on the setting as they think, in terms of entrainment and social life,” he says. “So, getting them here is crucial—and we spend some money to do that.”

Centre helps admitted students with the cost of a visit and also does “fly-in” programs for high school counselors. It’s also important to tell families that, even though the college isn’t on an interstate, it takes only about 40 minutes to drive from the airport in Lexington. Campus visits grew by 30 percent in 2015.

Centre, which enrolls about 1,400 students, has strived to diversify its campus ethnically, geographically and economically. It offers a special scholarship to 10 first-generation students and has also worked with the Posse Foundation, a nonprofit focused on expanding college access for underserved high school graduates.

“When students come here, it’s important that they see the people they will be with reflect the diversity of our country in every way,” Nesmith says. “That’s one of the hardest challenges for rural schools, particularly in the south. It’s one of reasons that kids from diverse settings, and from cities and suburbs, will not want to come.”

Enrollment growth, as good as it is for the bottom line, can be a balancing act at small institutions such as Centre, which has been adding about 25 students per year.

“Some of the conversations we’ve had around here as we’ve grown are, at what point does the culture of the campus and the nature of the experience change,” Nesmith says.

“Some people thought that threshold was 1,000 students and there are some folks who think it might be 1,500. Some think we could still be a highly personal, tightly knit community with 1,800 to 2,000 students.”

No Starbucks? No big deal

The performing arts center at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania brings in about 20 major acts a year (such as the Village People and Joan Jett) and offers discounted tickets to the school’s 3,600 students.

Rural campuses have to make up for the social and cultural activities that aren’t available in small towns nearby, says Robert G. Springall, dean of admissions.

Peru State College, located in a Nebraska town of 800 people about an hour from Lincoln and Omaha metro areas, gets its name out by serving as a cultural and entertainment destination.

“A rural college has to be a regional hub,” Hogue says. “It’s where people go for college-level athletics, for arts and educational speakers, for plays and for high school competitions.”

The college, with an enrollment of 2,600, also has spent $65 million on facilities improvement in recent years and offers in-state tuition to students in surrounding Midwest states, Hogue says.

Ultimately, “rural” no longer means living out in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from family where the TV reception is lousy.

A student (or faculty member) can live stream every season of “Games of Thrones” in HD on their iPads and keep in real-time contact with friends and family through social media, adds Reggie Hill, director of enrollment management at University of the Ozarks in Arkansas.

“Now, rural is less about remoteness or a lack of resources—it’s about a willingness to be close to nature or part of an intimate community,” says Hill, who is also the assistant vice president for advancement. “We have to stop apologizing for who we are—we have to stop apologizing that there’s not a Starbucks down the road or a main street that’s lined with bars and taverns.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor