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Reshaping the Narrative About the Future of Small Colleges

3 reasons for optimism.

June 13, 2018
 
 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The future of small colleges is bleak. The future of small colleges is bright.

Both of these statements can’t be true.

Or can they?

Right now, it seems as if the pessimistic view of the future of small colleges dominates the thinking of those who think and write about the future of higher education. And for good reason.

Enrollment at degree-granting colleges with fewer than 1,000 students has fallen by more than 5% since 2010. A recent Boston Globe article headlined For Small, Private Colleges, Fewer Students Means More Worries reported that: "...undergraduate enrollment trends across New England over the past 20 years shows that 20 percent of the 118 four-year, private colleges in the region have seen their enrollment drop by at least 10 percent.”

The combination of declining enrollments and growing costs have forced a number of small colleges to close or merge in the past few years. This list includes: Burlington College, Dowling College, Grace University, Marian Court College, Marylhurst University, Memphis College of Art, Mount Ida College, St. Gregory’s University, St. Joseph’s College, Saint Catherine College, and Wheelock College.  Since 2009, Ray Brown - former Director, Institutional Research at Westminster College - has been keeping a spreadsheet of college closures and mergers. It does not make for happy browsing.

Is this the only small college story?

Is the narrative that small colleges in the US are inevitably doomed by demographic trends and the cost disease the only one that matters?

Are today's small colleges as equally doomed as yesterday’s video rental stores?

The problem with the doomed small college narrative is that it may just be wrong. An alternative narrative is that the most exciting changes in higher education are today occurring at small colleges. If you spend any time on the campuses of small colleges you are likely to draw the following 3 conclusions:

1 - Small Colleges Are Incredibly Learner-Centric:

Anybody who is critical about the value of higher education should spend some time on the campus of a small college. It is at these institutions where students receive sustained individual attention from professors, librarians, administrators. Small colleges are places that are dedicated to the individual and personal growth of students. They are institutions that have designed the entire organization around nurturing and challenging the students that they enroll.

The challenge is that a student-centric community is expensive to run. It does not scale. Small colleges can’t take advantage the economics of the digital age. Classes are small. The physical environment in which students and professors and staff spend time together matters greatly.

But just because the economics of small colleges are challenging does not mean that the value of a small college experience should be in doubt. Attendance at a small college is the very best value going in all of higher education.

2 - Small Colleges Are Mission Driven:

One reason that I’m so positive about the future of small colleges is that I have great faith in the people who work at these institutions. They are doing everything they can to make it work because they believe in the mission of their colleges. For the faculty and staff and small colleges the sustainability of their institutions is not a matter of purely economic calculus. They believe that the education that the school offers to their students, and the benefits that their colleges bring to their local communities, goes beyond what can be captured on a balance sheet.

It is this mission driven orientation that causes the faculty and staff at small colleges to be so creative in their work. The importance of the survival of their schools goes beyond self-interest. Yes, the faculty and staff at small colleges are dependent on their jobs as anyone else. They have mortgages and car payments like everyone else. But for these folks, teaching and doing every job at a small college is as much a calling as a job.

We should not underestimate the capacity of smart and highly motivated people to figure out difficult challenges. The economics and demographics headwinds faced by small colleges are unlikely to lessen. Things are hard. But the people working at these places will continue to evolve and change their schools in order to manage these challenges. Some of the leadership, faculty, and staff at small colleges will not succeed in figuring out a way to keep going. Most will.

3 - Small Colleges Are Changing Fast:

The standard indictment of higher education is that, as an industry, it is too slow to change. That higher education does not innovate. That colleges are hidebound, slow to evolve, and backwards looking.

The characterization of US higher education as slow to change is a poor description of the reality of most small colleges. The very economic and demographic forces that are making life so difficult at small colleges are also forcing these institutions to do things differently.

If you step foot on a small college campus you will be confronted by a seeming never-ending array of programs and initiatives designed to improve the student experience. Small schools have rapidly moved away from a traditional content centric model of learning, towards a system of learning that is much more experiential and active. Small colleges do a great job of getting first-year students into courses that develop critical communication, analytical, and collaborative skills. Small colleges are able to rapidly develop new programs that are aligned with the demands of the job market. A small college can be flexible and agile in meeting student needs in ways that are exceedingly difficult for larger institutions.

None of this is to deny the very real challenges faced by small colleges.

These are difficult times for small institutions. And there is no reason to expect that things will get easier.

What we need to do is try to get our heads around the idea that small colleges enjoy advantages as well as liabilities. That some small colleges will close or merge, but that most small colleges will figure out how to survive.

We should also remember that the future of the small college is not pre-determined. That we have some agency in how this turns out. We have the ability to support small colleges with our donations. To suggest that our kids check out small colleges. To get to know the people who work at small colleges, and to ask them how we can help.

How do we get the success stories of small colleges to have the same prominence as is given to the failures?

Can you share your own small college stories of evolution, innovation, and success?

For those of you who work at a small college, what would you want the rest of us to know about your world?

 

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