Tennessee liberal arts college to drastically shrink

Aquinas College Nashville logoA Tennessee liberal arts college is drastically cutting back on staff, faculty, and programs. Dominican Aquinas College was once a “normal school”, focused on teaching teachers, and will become one once more, shedding its liberal arts undergrad and postgrad programs:

Then on Friday leaders announced a major change, shrinking the college and moving it back toward its roots as a normal school. Aquinas College will cut degrees in arts and sciences, business and nursing. It will eliminate residential housing and student life activities. And, significantly, it will not be accepting any federal funding.

The human cost includes this: “the college will be laying off roughly 60 of 76 staff and faculty members.”  Many students will have to finish their coursework elsewhere: “up to 140 of its 257 students will have finish their degrees somewhere else.”

Why?   The usual reasons, as The Tennessean explains: enrollment and finance.

Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, the spokeswoman for the Dominican congregation, which owns and operates Aquinas, said enrollment and fundraising have lagged behind projections for several years. As a result, the college had repeatedly been forced to dip into its savings to cover operating costs.

IHE gives numbers to that enrollment decline – more like a plummet than a decline: “In 2012, its enrollment was just over 600, Sister Anne Catherine said. At the start of the fall semester, it had dropped to 344. Today it is 257.”  On the finances, “Last summer, ‘we were able to pay our bills, but it was close,’ Sister Anne Catherine said.”

From the official announcement,

The congregation has concluded that there is no viable long-term solution which would adequately support a traditional college with residential and student life without placing both the college and the congregation at serious financial risk.

A related yet different perspective comes from “Clark Baker, a former member of Aquinas’ board and a longtime donor”:

an increasingly competitive higher education landscape — including many rapidly growing religious colleges — blunted the impact of those investments. Baker said the college stands to lose millions this year. Campus leadership said the latest estimates suggest around $1.9 million in losses.

(Remember what I’ve been saying about increased competitiveness making inter-campus collaboration more difficult?)

What can we learn about American higher education from this story?  It’s only one story, but does connect with numerous cuts and closings and merger talks from other small colleges and universities.  It may be that we’re shifting our sense of scale upwards, away from relatively tiny institutions.

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6 Responses to Tennessee liberal arts college to drastically shrink

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Very interesting. Does that increasing competition suggest oversupply? Are there too many schools for the student demand? Or possibly it’s a cost/value correction? Im surprised if there’s over capacity – my impression is of soaring demand, although costs have gone a bit crazy lately.

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    • Oversupply, yes. Let me explain.
      From around 1985-2010 America decided that we needed to serious expand the # of people with college degrees. So we grew all kinds of things: financial aid, online programs, and the size of bricks and mortar programs. Demand and supply kept pace.

      Then several things happened to mess with the plan.
      1) The 2008 financial crisis gutted many families’ ability to pay. Some “downshifted” in academia – i.e., going to a community college instead of a state school, a state school instead of a private.
      2) Anxiety about school cost and debt. This is driven in part by bad media reporting (ask me if you want more), but also by reality. About 2/3rds of students leave with debt, and the amount’s around $30,000 each. Total debt’s past all historical records. So again, families downshift.
      3) Demographics. America’s youth boom has faded, and we’re aging. Several regions are aging spectacularly, like the midwest and northeast. K-12 populations are shrinking in many areas. So colleges and universities are fighting for slices of a shrinking pie.
      4) A growing proportion of those students are “non-traditional”. That is, first generation college students and/or adults and/or veterans and/or afflicted by learning disorders. So it’s more expensive to educate them, and sometimes harder to graduate them.

      Higher ed has taken steps to respond, including creative ones. We’re aggressively recruiting international students – at best, they are rich and non-white. We’re also growing new ways to support students in school, from expanding student life to adding support centers. But it’s not working as a whole.

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  2. Robert Miller says:

    The other thing that will happen is startups will innovate new, lower cost ways to provide the same service (University of Phoenix)

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