How can small colleges survive the 21st century?

How can American small colleges survive and thrive in the 21st century?

I’m posing this question for discussion.  Think about what you know of this American institution and how it is faring now.

And to spur your thoughts, read this sobering Inside Higher Ed story about problems afflicting Earlham College.  Read it carefully and see which details seem especially important.

For some details that might resonate,

  1. Budget cuts have been ordered, from a $50 million budget plan down to $42 million.  (The budget was “$61.4 million in 2017“)
  2. “Earlham has been using money from its endowment to plug a gap between the revenue it collects and larger sums it spends”
  3. Anxiety about possible faculty cuts.
  4. Alumni worries that the college is straying from its mission.
  5. “net tuition revenue per student has been declining…In the 2013 fiscal year, Earlham collected $15,100 in net tuition revenue per student. It collected just $12,000 per student in 2018”.
  6.  Anxiety about the humanities.  According to the newly acting president, “How can we make sure we can preserve the humanities as we move through the whole process?”

What can small colleges do to survive such challenges?

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24 Responses to How can small colleges survive the 21st century?

  1. Kyle Johnson says:

    It seems to me that unless small schools can break completely free of the Carnegie classification ladder and provide education in a completely and radically different way, that they can only survive if they have at least 5000 students or a large endowment (maybe more than $300 million). And even then I think it will be hard to do education in the “traditional” way (as Earlham has shown, since their endowment is above my somewhat unscientific cutoff).

    A big part of the challenge is that there are fixed costs that exist as soon as you have one student, and they don’t get cheaper at scale until you’re big enough (thus the 5000 student comment). As a CIO I naturally think of the IT expenses as being in that category, but there are other costs (often due to regulatory burdens or service expectations) that fall in that as well. I wrote a blog post sometime ago about this that I think is still relevant:

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      The ancient answer to this is large lecture classes. Ancient, and also popular worldwide.
      Is expanding online learning -at scale – what you’re thinking of?

      PS: nice blog post! Please keep blogging. We need to hear your thoughts.

      • John Thompson says:

        I don’t know anyone who would endorse large lecture classes as an antidote for anything other than insomnia. That approach is the antithesis of being student-centered, which is a vital element in connecting with and engaging today’s students.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          I’m with you on that, John, beyond the small fraction of excellent lectures (actually good lecturers + active learning). But we know how popular these are worldwide.

  2. Rolin says:

    There’s a lot of mass media on the topic but scarce resource in recent years in the academic literature…a big swath of this in the early 2000s but not much since. I’m curious As to why.

  3. Ken Soto says:

    Kyle, your t-shirt problem is identical to the offset printing challenges I used to face – most of the money spent for a print run is spent on the first sheet. After that the price per unit drops dramatically, so clients wanting a small quantity were at a disadvantage.

    I’m not an expert at any of these issues facing small liberal arts schools, but I wonder if it’s just harder to see the future now than say before 2008 or earlier. Most administrators know the demographic challenges they face but can’t seem to adequately prepare in time. Maybe there’s nothing they can do – the number of available students going forward is just too small to support the number of independent institutions, and some number will have to merge (not saying that’s a solution) or close. Or, totally embrace a new way of providing education as Kyle mentions.

    It’s also concerning that Earlham could not make the adjustments. The article lists the things they’ve done to address to coming shortfall and all of them seem in line with what others are doing, but I wonder if that’s part of the problem – they are not like many others due to their Quaker traditions, but the strategic plan pillars are just like the others, so there’s little that is distinctive or different. And the tension between what alumni want (keep the Humanities focus) and what parents and students think they need nowadays is all to familiar.

  4. Clif Kussmaul says:

    I agree with Kyle Johnson about the large (and still growing) fixed costs of a college, which provides a strong incentive to increase enrollments, though there aren’t enough (traditional) students to support this at every college. I can think of several directions that make business sense, although they may be difficult or impossible given various stakeholders – faculty, alumni, students, etc. For example:

    – Specialize on selected academic areas, and reduce or eliminate other programs. Often, this means expanding programs that seem linked to employment (e.g. business, health sciences) at the expense of programs that seem less linked (e.g. humanities), but if most colleges choose this path there should be room to specialize in other areas – performing arts, languages & cultures, STEM. A liberal arts college should have courses in a wide range of subjects, but might not need majors in all of them.

    – Similarly, specialize on selected non-academic programs, and reduce or eliminate others. Some colleges could emphasize varsity athletics while others could reduce them and focus on student wellness. Similarly for cultural programs, dining options, residence halls, etc.

    – Outsource more operations, either to businesses or other academic institutions. Many colleges outsource their food services, bookstores, and some IT functions. Could they outsource admissions? alumni relations? student services? athletics? What about libraries? Academic programs? For example, a college might outsource some of its smaller academic programs to nearby schools with strong programs in those areas. Alternatively, for-profits or not-for-profits could develop high-quality content for specific courses & disciplines, and deliver them as a service to a variety of colleges.

    – Merge colleges into larger institutions which can share fixed costs. A group of small colleges could maintain separate brands but integrate more of their operations (including academic programs). Or a small college could become an area of focus within a larger institution – the fine arts college of a STEM university, for example.

    None of these ideas are completely new, but I think they will become more common, assuming colleges can navigate the difficult conversations and transitions to make them happen.

    • John Thompson says:

      If you outsource and merge everything, what’s left of the small college? It survives by losing its identity?

      • Clif Kussmaul says:

        Yes, if you outsource and merge everything, nothing is left – but many famous product brands live on after the company – look at the Procter & Gamble portfolio. This could be the future for some small colleges.

        Another option (and common business practice) is to focus resources on area(s) of expertise and specialization (and that appeal to your target market).

        Someone (Clay Christensen?) observed that colleges provide 3 broad functions – environment (dorms, food, activities), education (faculty, classrooms, assignments), and certification (degrees) – that in principle could be unbundled. A student could live on a bucolic small college campus, learn using evidence-based pedagogies & materials developed at a comprehensive institution, and fulfill requirements for a degree from a research university.

  5. John Thompson says:

    When you buy a house, what determines the sale price as much or more than anything else? Location, location, location. The location for everything today is online. If a small college wants to survive, it has to have a coherent, doable online strategy (and not some old strategic plan that just gathers dust on a shelf someplace, so to speak). How does a college get started? Identify a few gung-ho individuals with some internal credibility (not a typically one-from-each-department committee). Then locate an outside consultant who has walked the talk in online learning. Then get going because time is against you.

    • Clif Kussmaul says:

      I agree that location matters, but online is not the only location. Online is _a_ strategy, but not always easy or even feasible for small colleges.

      For many small colleges, physical location is a significant asset. Many students (traditional & non-traditional) choose colleges because of their physical setting, landscaping, athletic facilities, local amenities, distance from home, access to faculty, etc. Many pay a premium for such factors, which matter much less if everything is online.

      A decent online course might be easy to create, but an _excellent_ online course will require a major investment (high fixed cost, lower marginal cost). Will students choose decent courses or excellent courses? I worry that many small colleges are rushing into online offerings that will not provide a sustainable advantage over time, and missing other, better, opportunities.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Physical location can make a huge difference.
        Remember that many college students take classes at nearby campuses.

        • John Thompson says:

          And many local college students choose to take online courses, mainly for their flexibility. Additionally, on the topic of small college switching more resources to online learning, Antioch University is a recent case in point. Additionally, “Like Antioch, a variety of institutions are putting more resources into online programs, including Purdue University and the California State University system and small colleges such as Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. EdSurge reported that an increasing number of small private colleges are offering online courses to their students just to stay open.”

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Excellent point, John. Online learning *can* remove much of geography.

      • Karen says:

        A recent colleague mentioned to me a rise in on-campus students choosing to take a significant portion of courses online – they get the communal amenities of the campus (living space, access to food, friendships/activities, library and tech support) with the flexibility or digital preference of online. I don’t have any data beyond her comment, but I wonder if that is true more broadly across higher ed.

        I wonder if creating a supportive environment for learning could be an option (think Regus or WeWork concepts).

  6. Tomás Summers Sandoval says:

    I wish I knew the answer, though I suspect there isn’t really one but many, depending on the particular context. What I am pretty sure of is that there will be fewer small colleges offering their model of higher ed to fewer students in the future.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I’m having a hard time shaking that conclusion, Tomas. Perhaps some will merge, while others mutate into new forms.

      • Kristen Dellasala says:

        Do you see the future of smaller colleges as open learning communities that are void of actual classrooms? A sort of New Age library with all the bells and whistles. Perhaps small schools become flexible spaces that perform a versitile thinktank role; where students can work on projects with peers and instructors over coffee and in a room with plenty of technology — highly conversational and uber-collaborative spaces. Perhaps where students meet only once per week. Whereas online education is complementary and works alongside this model, offering learning in the form of validation of learning objects and completion of learning tasks?

  7. David Soliday says:

    I understand the increasing momentum toward employability as the chief goal of a college degree has been building for decades, driven by economics and deep sociopolitical shifts in our country. I wonder if liberal arts colleges can tap into renewed interest and desperate need for informed citizenship. I know it’s hard to keep up, but democracy depends on a lot of what the humanities and the liberal arts teach.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      The AAC&U made that liberal education->citizenship case a few years ago. I don’t know if they’re still pursuing it.

  8. Jeffrey McCafferty says:

    In addition to some of the ideas mentioned above, and as a graduate of a small (not tiny, but 2,000 student) college who has watched these trends for a while, I suggest the following three ideas (and by no means all of the possibilities).

    Small colleges (and many larger ones as well), should, whenever feasible,

    -Be excellent in at least one thing that differentiates it in its region (because most students, even online ones, tend to be regional). It will be different for each school, based on their mission, finances, and circumstances, but it is necessary.

    – Create partnerships with the local community. The ability to create strong town-gown relationships can lead to job creation benefits (internships and other critical career pathways for students) as well as development and funding opportunities that benefit both the institution/students and the local community.

    – Related to the last point, invest in faculty and student, alumni, and career services to ensure that students remember their time fondly and feel the institution has helped them achieve their goals not just in the classroom but afterwards because they are then more likely to become strong alumni. Those alumni will be willing to donate, host internships, volunteer, and can become the biggest and most vocal (and cost-efficient) recruiters for the school. The power of the alumni network can be quite strong. As an example, look at the alumni impact in the case of reviving Sweet Briar College.

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