Showing posts with label small liberal arts colleges. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small liberal arts colleges. Show all posts

Monday, November 16, 2020

Dead man walking: The small liberal arts colleges are in a death spiral

 Experts say that the Americans most at risk of dying from the coronavirus are elderly people with serious underlying health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and hypertension.

Something similar might be said about America's colleges. The schools most at risk of closing due to the COVID pandemic are small, private liberal-arts colleges that had severe financial problems even before the coronavirus forced most of them to close their campuses last spring. These are the little schools that were struggling with budget deficits and declining enrollments.

Common Application, an organization that processes a standard application form primarily for liberal arts schools, confirms this view.  So far this year, Common App received 8 percent fewer enrollment applications from first-year students than at the same time last year (as reported by Inside Higher Ed).

But some colleges suffered steeper declines than others. Colleges and universities in the Northeast and the Midwest, where the small liberal arts colleges are concentrated, suffered a 14 percent drop in applications. 

And small colleges lost more ground than big ones. First-year college applications were down the most among schools with fewer than one thousand students.  They also are seeing a 14 percent decline.

If next year's entering class drops by a corresponding rate, then a small college of 1000 students will enroll only 860 students, which would be an existential catastrophe.

But enrollments probably won't drop that much. Why? Because many colleges are lowering their standards to attract less qualified students---students who might have been rejected a few years ago.

Presently, a majority of colleges and universities do not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores.  They say they took this measure to offer more enrollment opportunities to first-generation and minority students.  

But I think they are lying. I think the colleges are abandoning standardized test scores to attract students who don't do well on those tests. By doing away with the ACT and SAT, the colleges can obscure that they are scraping the bottom of the academic barrel to get enough tuition-paying students to pay the light bill. 

Also, by giving applicants the option of not submitting a standardized test score, only people with good scores will provide them.  And this will cause the colleges' average test scores to go up--making them look better in the US News and World Report rankings.

In a way, American colleges in the age of  COVID are like the German Wehrmacht during World War II.  When the war began, Germany had plenty of healthy, young Aryan soldiers with blue eyes and blond hair--men who just couldn't wait to get their legs blown off in the service of the Thousand Year Reich.

But as the war wore on, millions of those ideal soldiers were killed in North Africa, the Western Front, or Russia.  The Soviets captured about three million Germans soldiers (mostly men but some women) and allowed them to starve to death.

By the time the Russians got to the suburbs of Berlin in 1945, most of those poster-perfect German soldiers were gone, and the Gestapo was rounding up young boys and old men to man the barricades.

Likewise, many small liberal arts colleges are willing to enroll just about anyone who can pay their tuition bill--whether or not the applicants are qualified under the admissions standards of yesteryear.  

Unfortunately, many of these unqualified students are taking out student loans that they will never pay off.  

In my view, many of these struggling little colleges should close their doors rather than stagger on for a few more years by signing up students who take out student loans for an educational experience that will do them very little good. 

Hey little guy, how would you like to get a bachelor's degree in gender studies?









Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Southern Vermont College is closing: Shrinking demand for expensive liberal arts degrees

Inside Higher Ed has done a terrific job reporting on the demise of small liberal arts colleges, and Greg Toppo's recent story on the closure of Southern Vermont College is a fine Inside Higher Ed story on this sad phenomenon.

As Toppo reported, David Rees Evans, Southern Vermont's president, announced that the college is closing at the end of the spring semester. The college has been buffeted by a series of blows: an embezzlement scandal, accreditation problems with its nursing program (which the college resolved), and news that the college's principal accrediting body is planning to put the school on probation.

Closing was the right decision. After all, Southern Vermont only has 332 enrolled students--down from a peak of 500 students just nine years ago. President Evans candidly admitted that the trustees decided to announce its closure now rather than later due in part to fear of being sued if it continued recruiting new students and then shut down precipitously. That's what happened to Mount Ida College, and Southern Vermont wisely decided to wind down its affairs more transparently than Mount Ida apparently did.

President Evans partly blamed negative demographics for its predicament. "New England is in a bad way--especially the rural parts of New England," Evans said. Vermont's high school population, which provides Southern Vermont with about a third of its students, has declined dramatically, and it will decline even more in the years to come.

But demographics doesn't fully explain why so many small liberal arts colleges are closing. There are two more major dynamics in play--and small colleges have no means to counter either of them.

Small, private colleges are too expensive.  First, small, private colleges are simply too expensive for the average family to pay. Most of these small institutions charge somewhere north of $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board--around $120,000 for a four-year degree. Few families have the resources to pay these costs out of pocket, which means students must take out loans to finance their education.

It is true that small private colleges are discounting tuition drastically--on average by about 50 percent. But $13,000 a year in tuition (about half of Southern Vermont's posted rate) is still a big nut to crack. Increasingly, families are sending their children to attractively priced, regional public universities, which look pretty appealing compared to a rural college with less than 400 students.

A liberal arts education has lost its appeal.  Secondly, some would say tragically, a liberal arts education has lost its appeal in the minds of most Americans. There was a time when most Americans believed that a liberal arts education has intrinsic value. People once believed that a grounding in the liberal arts nurtured civic values, cultivated an appreciation for beauty, and promoted rational thinking. Liberal arts, it was generally believed, helped prepare young people for a fuller and richer life.

I don't think many people believe that anymore. Most young people are keenly aware that they will go into debt to get their college degrees, and they know they must get a degree that will lead to a well paying job or they will be in big financial trouble.  More and more undergraduates are majoring in business, and fewer and fewer are majoring in English, history, and philosophy.

Indeed, colleges themselves are finding it increasingly difficult to articulate exactly what a liberal arts education is these days. For example, there was once a broad consensus about what constitutes the canon of American literature. Scholars might disagree on the details, but most would identify The Great Gatsby as a great American novel--perhaps the great American novel. And most would agree that a basic knowledge of American literature includes at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and perhaps Steinbeck.

That's not true anymore. After all, these authors are all dead white men. Where are the works of African American writers, Hispanic writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers?

Of course colleges can add books by marginalized writers to the curriculum, and most are doing so. But students can only read so much, and somewhere on the road to greater relevancy in the liberal arts students start asking--what's the f-cking point?

In fact, I have great sympathy with the critics of traditional liberal arts. I for one would rather be shot than read a novel by William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, or Henry James.

Moreover, literature that is particular to my own life experience means more to me than the so-called great works of American literature. I am a Catholic, and I have read widely in the works of Catholic writers: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Walker Percy, and Alice McDermott. I am a great fan of Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue, a hidden treasure of Catholic literature that is sadly out of print.

But I would not argue to anyone that the Catholic novels that mean so much to me should form part of the liberal arts curriculum. So how can anyone argue that every educated American should read The Great Gatsby?

And so the liberal arts colleges are dying--victims of demographics, soaring costs, and perhaps most of all by our increasingly diverse society that has become fragmented with regard to our understanding of what it means to be an educated American.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Many small liberal arts colleges are closing: Don't borrow money to attend an institution that is struggling to survive

Many small liberal arts colleges are on the brink of closing, making them a poor risk for people struggling to decide where to get their liberal arts degrees. Last year, one-third of colleges with enrollments below 3,000 students ran operating deficits, which is a very bad sign.

Even these schools' chief financial officers, who have every incentive to paint a rosy picture, are worried. According to the Wall Street Journal, only about half the CFOs at private, nonprofit colleges rated their institutions as being financially stable.

Small liberal arts schools are trying all sorts of strategies to survive. Some, like Holy Cross College in Indiana, have sold real estate to get cash infusions. Others, like Wheelock College in Boston and Shimer College in Chicago, have merged with larger institutions. And some, like Sweet Briar, are sending out distress calls to alumni, hoping cash infusions from wealthy patrons will keep them afloat awhile longer.

But the handwriting has been written on those ivy-covered walls; small liberal arts colleges have no long-term future. Some may limp along by selling real estate or drawing down their endowments, and some may continue to exist in an altered form by merging with stronger institutions. But the small, free-standing, liberal arts college is dead.

What are the implications of this shake up in the higher education industry? First, if you are shopping for a college, do not take out student loans to obtain a liberal arts degree from an obscure, private college that may be extinct before your student loans are repaid. How will you feel if you are still writing monthly student-loan payments ten years after your beloved alma mater closes its doors?

And college administrators and trustees should think about the ethical implications of continuing to recruit students when all the insiders know that their college is on its last legs. Is it morally right for a college with a string of annual budget shortfalls to hire an advertising firm to lure new students?

Of course, small colleges have the right to fight for survival and to try various strategies to meet their operating budgets. But the time must come when terminally ill institutions, like terminally ill hospital patients, must face reality.

A small college can keep itself alive from month to month with regular infusions of student-loan funds and Pell Grant money, just like a comatose patient can live from day to day by being fed intravenously.

But the day finally arrives when it is apparent that a dying institution is only postponing the inevitable by rolling out new schemes to raise cash or lure more students. And that day has come for dozens and dozens of small, private, liberal arts colleges.



Melissa Korn. Some Cash-Strapped Private Colleges Cut Programs, Sell Assets. Wall Street Journal, August 31, 2017.

Rick Seltzer. Shimer Will Become Part of North Central College. Inside Higher Ed, May 27, 2016.

Rick Seltzer. The Future of the Tiny Liberal Arts College. Inside Higher Ed, November 11, 2016.