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Listed below are common strategies that smart colleges are deploying to fortify and turnaround their institutions:

College Turnaround Strategies

1. Play where others aren’t playing. Think Elon University. No Harvard envy there. Elon attracts students who learn by doing and not just by reading text books. They practically own the “Engaged Learning” position in higher education.

2. Lead with strengths. Focus on the programs where the school has strengths and build from there. Or, as Dean Edward Snyder of Yale Business school says in the New York Times: ‘Give up the undifferentiated, multi-brass-ring strategy of best recruiters, best students, best facilities, blah, blah, blah.’

3. Focus. Palo Alto University offers psychology degrees only, Wheelock College offers child development programs only, Florida Polytechnic is the sunshine state’s STEM university, and Thunderbird School of Management specializes in International business only. Inch-wide, mile deep.

4. Be a contrarian. Zig when others are zagging.
[updated Nov 26, 2017] While most colleges are still using traditional student search strategies (i.e. buying names, sending them a ton of emails/postcards, whittling the names down to a small number of interested students, and courting them ferociously), smart colleges are embracing micro-segmentation, 1-to-1 marketing, look-alikes, algorithmic recommendations and A/B testing that Google and social media platforms are now supporting with their big-data-based machine-learning algorithms. Read the Williams Woods story.

5. Expand bright spots. President Arthur Kirk walks into Saint Leo University, sees the depth of experience the university has amassed in distance learning while serving members of the mobile active duty military. He decides to deploy the same technology to serve adult students nationwide with online programs. Thus begins an amazing success story.

6. Leverage intrinsic differential. Where others saw a school in distress, President Norman Smith of Wagner College saw prime real-estate facing New York City. He used that as the enticement for attracting students from the entire northeast. After all, who wouldn’t want to be near the City, and live in a pristine bucolic setting? Students showed up in hordes.

7. Merchandise hope and care. Charismatic President “Buck” Smith put the tiny David & Elkins College nestled in remote Appalachia on a path of prosperity based on sheer power of good old fashioned values of hope, optimism, decency, encouragement, generosity of spirit and nurturing of relationships. The college, once bleeding, is now operating debt free.

8. Invest in Branding. Babson has positioned itself as THE college for entrepreneurship, American University as the supplier of “wonks” to the political and governmental establishment, Drexel as the university that mandates coop experience, and so on. Investing in a strong brand for decades or longer can lift a college from obscurity to national prominence.

9. Offer Guarantees. Whether it is a graduate-in-four-years guarantee (e.g. Randolph-Macon College), a job guarantee (e.g. Capitol Technology University) or a tuition lock, parents and students are attracted to colleges willing to stand behind their commitments.

10. Prove it.
Many liberal arts institution are buckling under pressure from a society that puts greater value on vocational education. Not St. Edward’s, St. Olaf and Williams College. They have decided to embrace their strength in the liberal arts and are busy building a business case for why liberal arts education not only has an ROI, but is good for society and the world at large. Noteworthy among them is the valiant effort by Williams College which mapped the career paths of its 15,600 liberal arts alumni to illustrate that they go on to successful careers in all walks of life.

Deployed judiciously, these strategies will create an inflection point for any college seeking a turnaround. However, none of them will work well without a leader who leans in, and a senior team that hustles and deeply cares for the wellbeing of its students.

What successful turnaround strategies are you seeing out there?

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  1. I’ve worked for the past 10 years in higher education and completed a master’s degree in higher education administration prior to my current position. Out of all the things that I learned both in my educational and professional pursuits, the most important one was the power of student engagement and helping students create and recognize their own story. Don’t get me wrong, academics is and should be top priority among any higher education institution and it becomes a slippery slope when college and universities deviate from that; however, I’ve seen first-hand the impact of getting student’s involved, promoting activism and including them in the fiber of the institution. At a previous job, I developed and implemented a Center for Student Involvement to provide a space for the college’s clubs and organizations. It was deliberately designed to promote collaboration among differing groups and within a year of opening the doors, the volume of students involved on campus tripled. This spawned a creation of a new student union and an entire college division dedicated to student engagement. The snowball was rapidly rolling at this point with increases in enrollment and collaborations among students we never saw coming (College Republicans and College Democrats hosting a voter registration event together…in peace!). The difference was they weren’t just going to school, studying, graduating and moving on. They were getting an academic and co-curricular education to create their own college story. Our college President had the insight to recognize the value in a meaningful college experience and made engagement a top priority in his strategic planning. It was refreshing and it worked!

    • Thanks for sharing Holly. Student engagement is the holy grail of higher education. Goodwill created with engaged students turns into brand ambassadorship, referral feeders for future prospects, a pipeline for corporate recruitment, and a sustained source for long-term donations.

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