How Can Rural Colleges Compete?

June 29, 2016 by Sam Slater

From CampusBird Blog

Small, rural colleges are critically important for millions of students, but it can be a challenge for these schools to attract students. This post offers several actionable take aways to answer the question: How can rural colleges compete?

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher EducationLawrence Biemiller discussed the challenges small, rural colleges face to recruit incoming freshmen and maintain competitive retention rates. The story, “Small, Rural Colleges Grapple With Their Geography,” offers a fascinating insight into the everyday challenges that rural colleges face when competing to recruit and retail students. 

While large public and private institutions carry international brand recognition, the vast majority of the more than 4,700 degree granting higher education institutions in the United States face both recognition and recruitment challenges. Rural community colleges are critically important for millions of students.

922: Number of rural community college campuses, representing 59% of all community colleges in the US.

3,213,977: Number of students attending rural community colleges, 35% of all community college students in the US. (Source

Here are 4 ways in which rural colleges can become more competitive in recruitment and retention efforts.

1) Turn Your Remote Location into an Advantage

Most rural institutions likely engage in this almost by default. Show the beautiful vistas around your campus along with the opportunity for regular adventure trips. As Biemiller puts it,

“Kayaks and gorgeous views. A cellphone tower. A Starbucks not so far away. When recruiting students and faculty members, colleges in remote locations count unusual assets as part of their appeal.”

But there’s a fine line between taking advantage of a beautiful location and sounding desperate by including small advantages in your recruiting and marketing efforts. Outline exactly what you want to highlight and focus on that, ideally letting real students do the talking through candid testimonials and other media. Choose a ‘postcard’ vista and encourage in-person visits by highlighting what makes your institution special with a virtual campus tour.

Don’t underestimate another advantage of a remote or rural location: relative safety compared to urban institutions. Studies consistently show that a safe campus environment is the number one determining factor for parents when helping their children decide on a college, making it an ideal focal point for your parent marketing efforts.

Indiana University’s Protect IU organization is dedicated to helping students and visitors find information about health, safety, security, and preparedness.

2) Emphasize the Benefits of a More Personalized Student/Academic Experience 

Another important step in marketing your rural campus is understanding that you will never satisfy students who are set on a large, city institution. The students who do have the potential to fall in love with your school are the ones that prefer a more personal atmosphere, in which they get to know most (if not all) people on campus and are more than just a name in the eyes of their professors.

Especially students who come from urban environments may prefer a situation in which they become more intimately familiar with their classmates and faculty over getting lost in the hustle of an institution with 50,000+ enrollment. Don’t be afraid to leverage your ability to provide a personal experience, and the ability to form close relationships by highlighting individual faculty members and emphasizing your faculty-student ratio.

3) Highlight Alumni Networks

Still, many high school students fall into the trap of believing that if they decide to enroll at your rural institution, they are stuck in a geographic location with little way out. Counteract that belief by showcasing your national alumni network.

Even, and sometimes especially the smallest institutions will have successful alumni working around the United States and even internationally. Cooperating with your alumni office to understand where your graduating students go, and use the information to showcase the broad reach of your college. You can even use an interactive map that highlights the reach of your alumni network to visualize the information, and provide ready access to contact information for regional alumni ambassadors willing to connect with prospective and current students.

4) Let Your Students Speak for You

Without a doubt, many of your students will love your institution because of the community, location and the experience it provides. Find those students, ask them why, and capture their answers on video and/or text for recruiting materials. 

Some of the answers may surprise you. While you can expect to hear typical answers such as ‘beautiful campus’ and ‘personal environment’, you may also hear ‘great local opportunity,’ ‘affordable,’ ‘close to employer and/or family,’ among many others.

It’s also smart to appeal to non-traditional students, who – according to a 2011 report from Oregon State University, “Non-Traditional Students and Rural Community Colleges,” are, in fact, eclipsing the number of “traditional” students at rural schools.

What defines a non-traditional student?

A nontraditional student can be defined as one who: (a) delays postsecondary education after high school; (b) attends school part-time; (c) works full-time while enrolled; (d) is a single parent; (e) does not have a high school diploma; (f) is financially independent; (g) has dependents such as children; or (h) is the first person in his or her immediate family to earn a college degree (NCES, 2002). The average age of a rural community college student is 29, increasing the likelihood that he or she works full or part-time, is financially independent, and is a first-generation college student.”

These answers are marketing research gold and can help provide a deeper understanding of why students attend ultimately choose to attend your college.

Sure, marketing a rural college can be a challenge. But by focusing on your strengths, emphasizing your national reach, and leveraging your students, you can demonstrate the unique value of your location, academics and student life to attract and retain students.


CampusBird’s interactive campus map and virtual tour platform offers many opportunities to help rural colleges compete with a platform designed to highlight and promote their special attributes – from the beauty of their physical campus to a tight-knit student community, stand-out academic or athletic programs, and more. Have a look at a few community colleges that depend on CampusBird for a variety of marketing, admissions, facilities, and other needs.

Topics: Campus MapCampusBirdCollege Campus ToursShare Your PlaceVirtual EngagementVirtual Tour

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