Northern Michigan University in Marquette (pop. 21,355) is a good example. After enrollment dropped nearly 20 percent over four years, in 2016 the school rolled out the nation's first four-year degree focusing on marijuana -- Medicinal Plant Chemistry -- which college president Fritz Erickson said is a "hardcore chemistry degree." The school later opened a forensic anthropology "body farm" to study how humans decompose, which has led to collaborations with medical schools, law enforcement and the FBI, Field reports.
NMU also made sure its brochures showed students enjoying nature in the Upper Peninsula with activities like skiing and mountain climbing. "So many college materials, you could just change the name on the cover," Erickson told Field. "Ours are very specific to our sense of place. We market a lifestyle . . . We’ve decided to embrace who we are."
Field offers seven tactics that rural colleges can use to bring in more students and faculty:
- Differentiate a college by emphasizing its natural surroundings, creating signature programs or offering unusual extracurricular activities.
- Collaborate with other small colleges and pool resources. In western Massachusetts, the Five College Consortium allows students to access classes at Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, or the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Faculty members can also access one another's research facilities or teach at other campuses. A free shuttle bus connects all five colleges.
- Play up the quality of life and emphasize the benefits of living in a rural area.
- Challenge assumptions: prospective students and faculty members may not have a good mental image of rural America, so colleges should not only play up the quality of life, but show students how many opportunities a rural college has to work on important issues or emphasize how close the college is to an urban area.
- Make a joke: The vice president of enrollment at Grinnell College in rural Iowa has so often joked that the college is "conveniently located halfway between New York City and Los Angeles" that the catchphrase was printed on a t-shirt sold in the college bookstore.
- Own it: A growing number of rural colleges choose to highlight their rural location instead of downplaying it.
- Find the fit: Rural colleges should recognize that they're not for everyone and focus on attracting students and faculty who will do best there.