America’s small schools are in crisis. It isn’t a new crisis, but it is getting worse. Financial woes, flagging enrollment, and declining state-level funding have gathered into a big, black cloud and the nation’s smallest colleges are in the eye of the storm. _The Chronicle of Higher Education_ reported in 2019 that the prior five years brought with them the shuttering of more than 1,200 college campuses and the consequent displacement of more than half a million students.
There may be a tendency to view the contraction of the college market as something of a correction. After all, the college sector did enter the millennium fresh off of four consecutive decades of torrid growth. But this presumption is risky. If we view this merely as a correction, we overlook the very serious underlying causes. And a closer look at these causes suggests that the crisis currently plucking small schools from the college landscape will soon come for the big schools as well. Indeed, these patterns point to a crisis that may have metastasized in the smaller organelles of the body college, but left unchecked, these same patterns portend system-wide infection.
So what steps can we take to stop the spread? This fight begins on America’s smallest campuses. If you’d like to contribute to the solution directly, you could just jump right to our list of the Best Small Colleges and Universities in the U.S. and begin the enrollment process.
Or you can read on to find out how we dig our way out of this mess starting with our smallest campuses.
According to Capstone Wealth Partners, our tiny liberal arts colleges are facing a serious crisis. For smaller colleges facilitating smaller student bodies, this crisis has been mounting for some years. Capstone points to closures at Green Mountain College, Mount Ida, Southern Vermont, and Newbury as examples of small college collapse under the weight of unmanageable financial strain. As costs climb, state-level funding shrinks, and recruitment competition escalates, smaller colleges have absorbed the brunt of the impact.
The emergence of COVID-19 only magnified the impact. And this should concern us, not just because small schools represent variety and opportunity, but also because these most vulnerable schools are the canary in the coal mine.
This crisis is coming for the entirety of the American post-secondary educational system, and the likelihood is that COVID-19 has only accelerated our approach to this inflection point. As Capstone points out,
Today in the time of COVID-19, we know that it is not just the small liberal arts colleges facing cuts and closures. Ohio colleges like University of Akron are slashing academic and athletic programs and laying off staff. Ohio University is cutting staff. Even the mighty Stanford is facing cuts and increased use of their unrestricted endowment funds. Today in 2020, more colleges are in crisis than ever before.
The writing has been on the whiteboard for some time. NBC News points to trends a decade in the making:
Taken together, says Hechinger Report, these trends have placed an estimated 500 colleges in the immediate financial crosshairs.
Obviously, this implicates some pretty huge challenges, some of which are beyond the reach of college administrators. Population experts have long forewarned of a coming retraction in higher education. Entirely beyond the question of cost versus reward, a declining birth rate has for years threatened to scale back the decades-long growth enjoyed across the higher education spectrum. Increased regulatory oversight has also thinned the once teeming herd of shady for-profit schools, which is obviously a good thing. These trends do indeed represent a type of market correction that can’t (or shouldn’t) be prevented.
But there are also preventable trends accelerating the contraction of the college market, and there are strategic ways to take these trends head-on. And the secret to doing so may actually be nestled in the heart of a small, beautiful, and financially strapped college. So many small schools that have subsisted as hidden gems for decades or longer have been tarnished by declining enrollment and shrinking government support. But if we can save these hidden gems, we may also find a roadmap forward for all of higher education in America.
Read on for a look at a few of the strategies that might actually save small colleges and, in doing so, perhaps point the way to saving American colleges in general.
As smaller colleges weigh the best use of limited resources, there is perhaps no better long-term investment than an expanded set of online course offerings. By implementing effective Learning Management Systems, providing effective instructor training and building out support services for online students, smaller colleges have a chance to dramatically expand the reach of courses and instructors.
In doing so, institutions that have been historically fueled by regional populations can now attract and serve students from an unlimited geographical expanse, and from a broader range of backgrounds. EdSurge points out that
online programs open education to those who couldn’t attend otherwise. Nontraditional students now comprise nearly three-quarters of America’s college population. With many young adults working, caring for families, or traveling on the job, commuting to campus is not so easy and may even present real hardship, an impossible burden when you’re occupied with sometimes crushing demands at home or at work. As small colleges reach out to these new students, they might also turn threadbare balance sheets from red to black.
In other words, an expanded set of online offerings can readily translate into an expanded appeal to students with a more diverse set of personal, educational and professional needs.
In addition to improving online offerings, smaller colleges have a chance to fill the middle-ground between vocational institutions and traditional academic institutions. A growing population of adult learners is stimulating a rising interest in opportunities for technical, practical, and professional instruction. Smaller colleges are in a unique position to provide these assets in the context of a rich academic environment.
In addition to improving online offerings, smaller colleges have a chance to fill the middle-ground between vocational institutions and traditional academic institutions.”
Moreover, suggests Inside Higher Ed this would place smaller schools in a prime position to help advance professional prospects for those from lower income backgrounds. Inside Higher Ed notes that
there are tens of thousands of young people from lower-income and working-class families who could benefit greatly from—and in turn be a dynamic asset to—liberal arts colleges. Their inclusion would allow these colleges to become conduits for these neglected students to a world of creativity, entrepreneurship and civic engagement, along with immersion in bold ideas, complex questions and encounters with great works of literature, art, science and history.
These demographics are frequently overlooked by college recruiters. Small colleges have a chance to both bridge the opportunity gap and solidify their own enrollment numbers.
Because there are so many institutions vying for a dwindling number of enrollees, higher education has become an increasingly competitive sector. Marketing and recruitment—if not central to the academic mission of most schools—are indeed central to their business plans. Small colleges may benefit by shifting their perspective. To wit, Higher Ed Connects—an agency that helps small schools unify into more powerful coalitions—argues that survival may in fact depend on solidarity, asserting that
The best approach for financially challenged private colleges is to promptly start the development of alliances with 5-15 additional private colleges. After all, it is the cost component of the financial challenges that is most readily addressed by the scale available in larger organizations.
Marketing and recruitment—if not central to the academic mission of most schools—are indeed central to their business plans.”
By banding together and addressing collective challenges with the same organizational depth afforded larger institutions, Higher Ed Connects observes that smaller schools can more ably lower their costs and reduce tuition even while retaining the brands and identities that distinguish them in a crowded marketplace.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has strained both healthcare systems and higher education, events over the last several years may also suggest opportunity for collaboration across the two sectors. And small colleges are in a unique position to facilitate this collaboration. The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) makes the point that small, rural colleges—invariably those most aggressively hobbled by the pandemic—are also among the best suited environments for safe and effective stewardship under COVID conditions. Because smaller institutions can move more nimbly to adopt community-wide policy changes, such institutions have the potential to build safety and healthcare roadmaps that might be scaled to the needs of larger and more cumbersome college communities.
But in order to do so, says the NEBHE, small schools must find direct support and partnership from local health agencies and organizations. The NEBHE advises that
Small colleges reopening in rural settings need a partnership with the nearest and best medical facility, ideally one with transport and easy access to larger health facilities. This will matter to the families of students who may think rural means absence of access to quality medical care. This includes access to meaningful mental health support, effective training for inclusiveness, and open lines of communication regarding often rapidly changing protocols, CDC guidelines, and campus policies. By making small colleges a major contributor on the frontlines of COVID prevention—and by more generally improving the capacity of small colleges to manage the health and wellness needs of their local populations—we can help to elevate their stature, their importance within the regions they serve, and consequently, their enrollment figures.
Ultimately, at the heart of each of the recommendations above, and driving this broader conversation, is the need for small colleges to transform as businesses. Many of the realities that have altered the college landscape are here to stay. The expanded online and professional offerings advised above, for instance, are warranted by long-term changes in the actual makeup of the college student population. These prime to be lasting changes, and institutional survival may depend on adapting accordingly.
America's best small schools have found effective ways of balancing limited financial resources with unique, intimate, and specialized educational opportunities.”
But there’s more to it. In reality, college campuses are institutions with considerable resources—educators, laboratories, event spaces, residential spaces, and land. According to The New York Times, some schools are actually
squeezing small amounts of money from such things as renting out their dorm rooms in the summers on Airbnb, catering weddings and licensing their logos for products including (in the case of 48 universities and colleges) caskets and urns. While some of these examples may feel pretty radical, small schools must be more open to alternative revenue streams so long as these don’t compromise the educational goals of the institution.
Of course, the very best way that you yourself can help advance the educational mission of a small school is to join its community. America’s best small schools have found effective ways of balancing limited financial resources with unique, intimate, and specialized educational opportunities. The best way to explore the impact of these smaller schools is to use our Concentrated Influence metric, which measures how densely influence is distributed within a group or organization. Specifically, concentrated influence adjusts overall influence by a factor that is inversely proportional to the size of the group or organization. Thus, for two groups with the same overall influence, but where one group is smaller than the other, the smaller group will have the greater concentrated influence.
In the simplest terms, Concentrated Influence is a metric that we’ve designed in order to level the playing field on behalf of excellent but overlooked smaller colleges. Check out our Custom College Rankings tool and choose the Concentrated Influence Ranking Metric to search for the best small schools for your educational needs.