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Marketing “Small-Town” Colleges and Universities: Four Questions.

We’ve been reviewing websites and other materials for smaller universities and colleges outside major population centers. A typical formula for describing location is something like this: “Beautiful_____(name your town) is just ___(so many miles) from_____(name a medium-to-large city). It combines the history and charm of a small town with easy access to metropolitan resources.”

What’s limiting about this framing? For starters, the construction implies a liability: as a student you’ll be here, but not to worry because you can easily get to there.

There is a familiar counter argument, which makes its way into communication: some students simply prefer living away from big town noise, crowds and distractions. In the case of less well-known colleges and universities, they might also sense that superior instruction and the potential for lasting friendships are not subject to the size of a student body, the depth of endowment, research rankings, or athletics division.

But an even more compelling proposition is emerging to support institutions beyond urban hubs, technology centers, or those perhaps blessed with ski slopes or along the seashore.

A college’s town can itself be presented as a vibrant incubator for learning and personal growth.

Historically, the relationship between a university and its local community has often been characterized as contentious – the classic town and gown division. A new dynamic is suggested in the many case studies gathered by the International Town and Gown Association (

Students are part of their university community, but they can also embrace their roles as citizens of the town. These students, for example, are engaged in internships at sites as varied as the local hospital or county government.  New themes between locale and local higher education institutions emphasize partnerships and connections among students, neighbors and community. Common concerns often include opportunities for active learning focused on challenging topics like housing, transportation, safety and neighborhood development.

From a slightly different perspective, smaller towns are becoming more appreciative of the contribution made by local colleges and universities.  In The Atlantic recently ( /archive/2017/05/rural-economies-and-small-towns) Alana Samuels observes: “Pick any college town and it’s likely doing better economically than other nearby rural areas. The unemployment rate in Kearney, Nebraska, home of the University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, is 2.5 percent, compared to the state’s overall rate of 3.4 percent.”

Students can tap into local entrepreneurial expertise. In Walla Walla, Washington, for example, undergraduates are able to be part of a burgeoning winemaking industry. And college faculty provide instruction supporting that effort.

While all these aspects of college-within-community may have more resonance to a student once enrolled, we suggest that they be addressed in materials for potential students. Consider these four questions:

  1. How have we defined the supportive relationships between our institution and our community?
  2. Have we featured the kinds of specific learning opportunities available for students within the community?
  3. Do our visual representations actually reflect the community in which we work, or do they seem like clichéd, tired idealizations?
  4. Have we captured the flavor of local culture that the community shares with students?

Put a bit more dramatically, the real challenge may be this: if you fail to present your college or university as part of somewhere, prospective students could easily be drawn to the attractions of an online nowhere.

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