Small Colleges: Surviving the Enrollment Cliff

The coming enrollment cliff affects all higher education institutions, but small colleges are in the most precarious position. With the number of traditional college-aged students contracting starting in 2025 nationwide, small colleges need to do a lot to stay viable and survive the coming changes in the higher ed landscape. An essential part of the survival of these colleges is not just how many students enroll but who those students are. Students that align with the unique mission of a small college will strengthen the institution in more ways than just with tuition dollars. Attracting and enrolling the perfect-fit students for your college is the job for admissions departments at smaller colleges, and it requires some finesse.

Every Student Matters

Enrollment numbers for almost all colleges are down, but for smaller colleges, the importance of each and every enrolling student makes a difference. Smaller colleges tend to depend more on tuition for their financial survival.

But students who strongly support the central mission of your college will be part of a coalition that will strengthen the school and help it keep operating. No one wants to support a lost cause or an institution giving off mixed messages. Plus, when alumni feel strongly about their alma mater and the current students are continuing the traditions and priorities of the school, they will band together to keep the school alive. Hampshire, Sweet Briar, and Antioch are three small colleges where their unique character and strong student and alum support helped save them from going under.

Positioning Your School as Community Hub

While the bad press about colleges these days often revolves around privilege and politics, countering that notion can be tricky. But positioning your institution as a “village commons,” where people from the community see your college as an intellectual and cultural hub and as an economic engine of the region, will have more success. Every area has different characteristics, business needs, and cultural significance. Involving the community in campus activities can help dispel a college’s “ivory tower” reputation.

Increasing your interaction with the local community can help to situate you as a vital resource that breathes intellectual life and vibrancy into the area. That doesn’t mean you will try to attract only local students to enroll, as the fresh energy of people from other places can invigorate the dialogue on campus and in town. However, 80% of parents would prefer their kids attend college within six hours of home. So welcome students from afar while realizing that your region could hold the most potential for student recruitment.

Embrace Your Uniqueness While Also Trying New Things

Your college’s unique environment and character may be innovative, religious, ethical, friendly, or any mixture of attributes that help attract students and foster them through their college years. Because liberal arts colleges, tiny ones, can be different and cater to a particular outlook or focus, marketing can double down on this messaging, helping to further the school’s character by bringing in like-minded students.

At the same time, the world is changing around us. Colleges need to adapt their programs, structures, and profiles to meet the needs of today’s students, parents, and communities. For admissions officers, that can include embracing digital technologies for marketing and communications. Newer channels for reaching students and innovative methods for targeting the right students will help you find your next enrolling class.

It may seem like a contradiction: honor your traditions while encouraging change. But in a world where things are changing fast, the bedrock values of your institution are crucial to communicating your mission as a purveyor of higher education. Parents and students alike will feel more positively about your school if they feel there is a moral and ethical core in bringing quality education to students. Grounded in institutional principles and positioned to meet the needs of today’s students is a firm position from which to promote your school.

Small colleges may feel more vulnerable financially and in enrollment within the current conditions for higher education, yet they also have distinct advantages. Many students think they could get lost on a large campus and desire more of a community where people know each other. Similarly, parents may feel more comfortable with their students in a community where staff and students look out for each other’s well-being. Leaning on the positives of a small school size can benefit your marketing.


Don’t be afraid to tout your school’s distinctive character while embracing today’s digital marketing platforms. Use modern digital tools to help you target students who embrace the values of your institution and will make it strong, both in enrollment numbers and in furthering its mission. Don’t let your small college fall off the cliff—you can survive this!

If you would like help with digital marketing, we can support the digital transformation of your enrollment efforts. Please contact us for more information.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can help you adapt to the evolving education marketing landscape and ramp up your efforts, please contact us today.

Parent & Student Survey Whitepaper


The Annual PARENT & Student Survey

Advance Education conducted a nationwide survey to learn what students and their parents are looking for from institutions – and the right marketing channels to reach them.

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