The Small-College Enrollment Playbook

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Five steps colleges can take to rebound from shrinking classes.


By Aaron Basko
November 4, 2021

I started my enrollment career as an admissions counselor at Rivier College, a Catholic institution in New Hampshire with an enrollment of 800. I fell in love with the impact I could have on an individual student’s journey — the effort of one person in a small environment is magnified and concentrated in a way that is hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it.

When your college’s existence is in question, you need to reassess who you are and what needs to change.

Shortly after I left Rivier, it “upgraded” from college to university, following the “bigger is better” trend in higher ed. Since then, I’ve spent two decades working at small and midsize institutions on the East Coast, watching as larger ones absorbed many of the features that were once the small college’s hallmark. Flagship universities created honors colleges to give top students small classes and access to professors. Midsize public institutions focused on beautifying their look and feel to advertise (as we did at one of my former institutions) “a private-style education at a public price.”

All this has placed a heavy burden on small colleges to prove their worth, and they are struggling to do so. In the early days of the pandemic higher-ed watcherspredicted a wave of small-college closures, and while the worst hasn’t come to pass, signs of small-college stress are plain. Mills College, in Oakland, Calif., is being acquired by Northeastern University. Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences is planning to merge with Saint Joseph’s University. Sierra Nevada University is taking steps to become part of the University of Nevada at Reno. Alabama’s Judson College shut down at the end of its summer term. (Higher Ed Dive tracks recent closings and mergers.)

The global pandemic has further endangered many small colleges. A recent Chronicle analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics looked at the top 10 gainers and losers of enrollment for each state in 2020. Of the 100 schools that saw the largest percentage losses in enrollment in that sample, only three had over 2,000 students (two of those were community colleges). The pandemic’s impact has also emphasized the line between “haves” and “have-nots”. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse indicates that while private non-profit institutions declined only 0.7 percent in their enrollment for the fall of 2021, that number is skewed by the most selective institutions, which grew by 4.3 percent. Enrollments at less-selective colleges shrunk by 1.8 percent to 2.5 percent in all other categories.

Is this higher education’s new story line? David gets squashed by Goliath and the online Philistines?

That doesn’t have to be the case, but for small colleges to thrive, they need to find a way to recover momentum in their enrollment quickly. A few small institutions have done this recently. Millsaps College, in Mississippi, brought in new enrollment leadership this year, and saw a 56 percent larger incoming class for fall 2021 compared with the fall of 2020. Emory & Henry College, in Virginia, just enrolled its largest class in its 185-year history, up 63 percent from last year. Or my most recent institution, Sweet Briar College, where in two years the incoming class increased by 80 percent and total enrollment by one-third. That’s what I think of as a rebound — a dramatic pivot that jump-starts a college’s momentum in the right direction.

How can small colleges achieve this kind of a pivot? Here’s what I have learned from working in the trenches.

Reinvest in the Core

When you realize that your college’s existence is in question, you need to reassess who you are and what needs to change. Colleges tend to have a deeply embedded sense of their own mission and way of doing things, and sometimes nothing except a crisis will allow that culture to change. In good times, inertia reigns at many institutions. Indeed, colleges are not known for being entrepreneurial or nimble — and yet that is what it takes to walk away stronger after a crisis. You need to reinvest in a small number of areas that are true to your mission but also distinctive in the marketplace, and then innovate in how you present these distinctive qualities and their value.

What three programs can you lead with? What about your location makes you special?

As the enrollment leader at one college where I worked, I had my team focus on the five things we thought everyone in the world should know about us, and then we did everything possible to get those five things into the public mind-set. Marketers call this positioning. At another institution, we decided that the faculty were our story and our marketing focused around 10 amazing faculty profiles that demonstrated our value system. There is a lot of talk about “not trying to be everything to everybody,” but actually adopting that approach can be scary. It is this kind of focused message, however, that allows a college to rise above the noise.

Play Your Own Game

Most institutions are working from the same 1980s’ playbook — increase headcount, raise tuition a little each year, add new programs in hot fields, and partner with community colleges for transfers. These tactics were built to favor larger institutions. Small colleges need to take a different approach. What is everyone else doing that is not working for you? At one college I worked at we had our best recruitment year ever when we quit traveling and focused almost exclusively on inviting students to campus. We dropped vendors that warned us peer institutions would get ahead of us unless we bought some new functionality. We purchased names of prospects in rural areas that we thought were under-bought. If big places are doing something very successfully, that should automatically make you question whether it is a fit for you.

Here is where you can also use size to your advantage. At a smaller college, you can make the recruitment experience personal for every admitted student. I had one staff member who would go to her admitted students’ soccer games and theater performances to let them know she cared about them as a person. Another counselor on my team was so in tune with her students that they (and their parents) would text her at all times of day. Remember students’ birthdays. Remember what is going on in their lives and ask about it.

Most colleges are fishing in an overcrowded pool with the same bait. Go fish upstream by sharing with the market what you truly do best. Play your own game.

Invest in Your People

At this moment, the fate of most small colleges rests on the shoulders of some of the most underpaid and undertrained members of their staff — their admissions counselors. Admissions is an area critical to the health of an institution but garners very little respect. I remember a colleague saying, “Admissions? Oh, you are the people who put out the balloons when students visit campus.” Ouch.

By and large, admissions people are energetic, creative, dedicated, self-sacrificing, and motivated. They sometimes burn out from travel or low pay, but most often I see them leave because they don’t feel respected. That is okay for the large institutions that can afford to “churn and burn” employees, but it’s not okay for small colleges — especially in this market.

Turnover is costly — it takes nearly a full admissions cycle for a new person to be fully trained. In the meantime, opportunities are lost, relationships with schools are broken, and morale and momentum are derailed. Motivating an admissions team to superior performance is not difficult: They are demotivated by fear and pressure, but easily motivated by positivity, recognition, and by sensing the institution is proud of them. Have the college’s leadership team mentor them. Encourage their ideas and creativity. Above all, listen to them. A little investment in their professional development will pay you back in results.

Grow Your Influence

One of the greatest assets that an institution can develop over time is a set of relationships with people who influence the college decision for students. When presenting to school counselors, independent counselors, or community organizations, share that their work is important to you. You are looking for needles in haystacks and they know the haystacks much better than you can. Colleges have to buy thousands of names from testing services because the yield on them is so low, but someone who is recommended to you by an influencer is highly likely to choose to enroll. Not only that, but an influencer can continue to recommend students to a college year after year.

Having a network of recommenders is like a goose that lays golden eggs. At one school, we set a goal to identify 1,000 contacts who could give a positive recommendation for the college and ask them to do so in the next year. Make it exciting and fun for people to be part of your story. The whole campus can be engaged in this effort. Coaches, alumni, parents, students, faculty, and staff all have within their networks people with this kind of influence. Pool these lists of influencers so that the college can communicate with them and engage them in the mission in an organized fashion. Reaching out to influencers to make them champions for your institution is one of the essential moves for keeping your pipeline healthy.

Get Some Help

When the situation demands it, find someone knowledgeable who can tell you what you are doing wrong. This could be a consultant or an outside enrollment professional, but you need someone who understands enrollment, and someone from whom you can accept painful truths. Early in my career, I was put in charge of all visit experiences at my college. Within a month, an outside consultant came in to review our operation. My vice president warned me of the report: “You are not going to like what it says about our visit.” But it turned out to be the most important tool I ever received for making needed changes.

I kept that initial report, and two years later was able to show a side-by-side comparison that assured our team that we had one of the best visit programs in our market. That change contributed to an over 60-percent increase in applications and nearly halved our acceptance rate in just a few cycles.

A fresh eye is especially important if your enrollment team is homegrown and does not have significant experience at other institutions. The good news is that many enrollment professionals are willing to help others with their experience. We are often put into situations where we think competitively, but most of us are also happy to share our hard-won knowledge. A bit of advice on this front: Put together an advisory board, ask for help from enrollment managers in noncompeting markets, and look for those with diverse experience who can see the market holistically.

This is a challenging time to be in higher ed, particularly if you are a small, tuition-driven institution. But all is not lost. A “rebound” is achievable via good practices, good people, and reaching out to win over others to your values. Institutional success is obtainable even in the face of demographic and cultural headwinds, and small colleges do not need to be ruled by fear of the future. As a small college, you have a place in this ecosystem that is uniquely your own, and you can embrace it and thrive. You can play your own game.


Aaron Basko is a consultant and enrollment strategist who has worked for a wide range of colleges and universities.

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