Colleges traditionally specialising in agriculture and art and design have diversified into ornamental horticulture and television special effects to ensure their survival after becoming independent three years ago.
Many colleges say the pressure to recruit has forced them to ensure courses are attractive to students and meet industry needs.
"The game has changed from just sitting waiting for students to come. Now you have to go out there and hunt," said Paul Truscott, head of business studies at Pershore College of Horticulture in Worcestershire.
Being in competition with other colleges, universities and schools has forced specialist colleges to offer higher levels of qualifications and many have linked up with local universities to introduce degrees. Summer courses to meet growth targets and bring in extra revenue have been set up as well as preliminary courses to bridge the gap between school and higher education.
A more commercial world is also mirrored by what is happening in colleges, lecturers say. John Brookham, principal of the agricultural institution, Plumpton College in East Sussex, said: "Diversification has to reflect what is happening in industry. When demand for poultry dried up we dropped the course and introduced subjects like aboriculture (tree surgery) and viticulture (the science of growing grapes) which have been over-subscribed."
Agricultural colleges have moved away from the strict definition of their subject, setting up courses in animal care and equine studies, and students who take the Fine Arts degree at Cleveland College of Art and Design now also learn business studies.
"Whether they intend to become artists or sculptors, at the end of the day we have to train them to make a living," said Don Watt of Cleveland College.
Mature students are an increasing percentage of specialist colleges' intake. Furniture restoration courses at Leeds College of Art and Design are popular in this market and the college is hoping to offer courses in jewellery-making and tapestry.
Other colleges are forging links with institutions overseas. Bishop Burton College in North Humberside is to take its first students from the United States next year.
Recruiting from the local community and offering training to businesses nearby is another area to which colleges have turned their attention as discretionary grants have dried up and students tend to study nearer home.
"Land-based colleges are offering more commercial courses for local businesses and opening up education for the community," said Stuart Davidson of the college. "You have to balance the books at the end of the day." The Pounds 500,000 sports centre recently completed at Myerscough College in Lancashire will be open to the whole community.
Efficiency has become an urgent priority. Integrating lectures in course areas which overlap is one way Newton Rigg College in Cumbria has reduced costs.
"It is hard work," said Reg Scott, the vice principal. "But it is easier to cope with the demands of expansion than with the stress of contraction. "
Ties with industry have been strengthened and almost all colleges have consultative committees with lecturers and business representatives.
Lecturers say business leaders increasingly expect recruits to have good qualifications and Bournemouth College of Art and Design this year started a BA (Hons) in costumes for screen and stage in response to this trend.
Diversification has not torn specialist colleges from their roots, however. Lindsay MacAdam, Director of Academic Affairs at Merrist Wood College in Surrey said being a centre of excellence in agriculturul courses was as important as ever.
"Just as Oxford and Cambridge will continue to draw because of their reputations, so we must concentrate on high standards and quality in the areas for which we were established," he said.
Industry representatives generally agree specialist colleges are responding positively to market changes. Lyn Sawacki, head of the Industry Training Organisation at ATB Landbase, the old agriculture training board, praised the innovative ways which colleges have found to survive.
"Although farming is declining in importance it is still needed," Ms Sawacki said. "Anything which the colleges do to ensure their viability has to be good for agriculture."
Some art and design colleges need to be more flexible to cope with on-going training needs, said Roger Shaw of the British Printing Industries Federation. Peter Clark of the education policy group at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "The biggest demand from employers is for core skills such as communication and team work."
Specialist colleges with a lot to offer are more in control under the new funding arrangements, said Patricia Stubbs, communications officer for the further education funding council.
City of Leeds College of Music has recently acquired a new building with extra funds not previously accessible. John Robert Brown, head of external relations said: "The rewards are so much greater. For many the new arrangements allow us to lead more colourful and richer lives because we are in charge of our destiny."