How to stand out as a private college


Some private higher ed institutions have been in a financial battle for decades. Following a string of campus closures during the mid 2010’s, the COVID-19 crisis offered relief through its federal student aid bill. Now, with that aid about to expire, private colleges find themselves back to square one in balancing the books and finding financial viability.

Some institutions are even facing permanent closure. Helen Drinan, ex-Interim President of the private liberal arts college Cabrini University, was brought in to steady a sinking ship and guide the financially failing institution back into calmer fiscal waters. Despite the Interim President’s best efforts, Cabrini announced its planned closure after the 2024 Spring semester.

Drinan told CNN, “you can cut lots of different things, but if you can’t build new revenue, you really are playing for time.”

Taking heed from Drinan’s advice, private colleges are now at a call to arms for the most prominent stream of generating revenue – students. With a demographic cliff looming and the value of higher education as a whole coming under scrutiny, the fight for a shrinking pool of new students seems daunting. But fear not, with some strategic positioning, your private institution can ride out the storm.

Benefits of private colleges

Let's start with the basics: what makes private colleges special. Private colleges offer a wide range of benefits when compared with larger public institutions. When enrolled with cohorts numbering in the thousands, larger institutions can fail at meeting the individualization that students crave from their education.

Private colleges are more likely to offer specialized departments or courses and can give students more intimate access to leading faculty, facilities and job opportunities. Combined with the strong alumni and employer networks that are frequently embedded into private college life, students have more chances to find gainful employment after graduating.

It’s also worth noting that while in-state tuition can be cheaper comparatively, private colleges often provide large sums of financial aid to students which can negate the initial price tag on their tuition.

Granted, you may have already been aware of all this. But it's how colleges communicate these benefits that can make a huge difference in coaxing students through your doors.


Lean into shifting perceptions of college degrees


The change in the perceived value of higher ed is no secret. While the sector as a whole needs to address these concerns, private colleges especially can provide a strong rebuttal for the arguments against getting a college degree.

Answering concerns directly will help combat the rhetoric that a college education may not be worth the time and money. Worried about getting a job after graduation? “Our career fairs provide a higher chance of finding a job due to the high employer-to-student ratio.” Don’t think you can afford college? “Our financial aid packages are vast enough to cover a significant portion of your tuition.”

Acknowledging the concerns of potential students not only demonstrates empathy for the challenges around education, but shows how your college provides an active solution for students.  


Show, don’t tell


Simply stating the benefits until you’re blue in the face is not enough to cut through the noise. Winning over Gen Z and the incoming Gen Alpha is not just the holy grail for HEIs but for brands universally. Yet, understandably this audience group has become the most ad-resistant generation ever, and simply rejects messages that they are just told. They need to be shown.

User-generated content from your current students is a tried and tested way of showing the benefits of your offering rather than telling. Instead of stating student: faculty ratios, show prospective students the smaller class sizes from the eyes of a current student with a ‘day in the life of’ Instagram Reel. Instead of saying how much financial aid is available, break down the long-term financial impact that it will have through an educational TikTok. You need to move beyond stats and figures and into engaging story-telling which cuts through bland messaging based on historical data.


Avoid clichés


We’ve all fallen into the trap of standard education speak. “Find your passion” and “Turn your dreams into reality” have been used to the point of no return. Unfortunately, these well-meaning slogans are a big turn-off for prospective students. Ad copy and messaging needs to tune into what makes your college unique. Is it the focus on social justice on your campus? Is it the high academic standards you have? Learn what makes you, well, you.

Once you’ve got an iron grip on what makes your institution stand out, be bold with your messaging. Try molding it with humor, a viral trend or even a reference to your competition. Gen Z aren’t known for playing it safe, so why should your messaging to them be any different? 



Private colleges are far from finished. When you look at the forces driving the fall in the perceived value of a college education, private institutions offer strong rebuttals across most of the concerns. Tackling these arguments head on, showing students the solutions your institution provides and carving out a unique brand identity can flip those concerns on its head. If done collectively and well enough, the conversation may shift into questioning the perceived value of a degree from public institutions instead.

Need help with your messaging and brand portrayal? Get in touch to see whether collaborating with a trusted partner could help.