A sanguine discussion about the fate of small colleges

What’s going to happen with America’s small colleges?

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A radio conversation yesterday explored this very usefully.  Vermont Public Radio (VPR) interviewed several local higher education leaders, involving some listener questions, and I recommend listening to the discussion.  Yes, Vermont is an unusual state in many ways (tiny, rural, very liberal yet very pro-NRA), but the issues raised are familiar to anyone involved in post-secondary education nationwide.

Guests included: Tom Greene, founding president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a commissioner for the New England Association of Schools and CollegesVermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding; Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.  The host was Jane Lindholm (and she was excellent).

Let me draw out some points I found especially interesting.

The specter of institutions closing came up early on in the program, as Lindholm asked what people thought of a prediction that several hundred colleges and universities could close.  Interviewees did not disagree with this.  One interviewee celebrated a merger of two campuses, which led to saving money and other economies of scale.  As the host observed, “We’ve established that not everyone’s going to survive… It’s not sustainable…. This is the bursting of a higher education bubble.”

Demographics – the public sector representative (Spaulding) was the first to mention the demographic crisis, with Vermont’s K-12 population shrinking fast.  The private representatives hinted at shifting their focus to include more adult learners.  Lindholm noted that the demographic trends were foreseeable (yes!).

Much of the discussion turned on economics: the cost of education, the debt problem, the lifelong benefits of a degree.  One of the interviewees offered this cheerful note: “[t]he majority of our students are able to find work [after graduation]”, which wasn’t exactly selling the experience.

An admissions director, referenced in conversation, offered this telling anecdote on Twitter:

“Admission Reps: “We’re a small private liberal arts school…”

Students: “Do you have nursing / communications / criminal justice?””

There was an interesting argument about the value of the humanities or liberal arts.  One college president argued that English was more attractive to employers (at least on Wall Street) than an economics degree; the host was pretty skeptical.  Two leaders thought the humanities weren’t in trouble, so much as campuses needed to add STEM and professional degrees – i.e., higher ed isn’t cutting programs, but adding more.

Strategies for survival: one strategy discussed was changing colleges to universities, to be more attractive to students.  Another strategy was more aggressive outreach to and partnership with K-12, including dual credit relationships.  A third was focusing on a specific mission or niche; cited were campuses focusing on teaching students with learning disabilities.  A fourth: offering more “relevant” programs.

One challenge was phrased thusly: “[t]he most dangerous place to be in higher education is to a small, rural, residential, and not elite.”

State support – it was noted that Vermont has very, very low funding for its public institutions.

Institutional inequality – Green noted that rich institutions were getting richer, while non-rich ones were not.  Host Lindholm mentioned two of the former, Middlebury College and Dartmouth College (not technically in Vermont, but right on the border, and always looms large in this state).

Marketing and outreach – there were some interesting divides and observations.  While the private institution representatives celebrated the liberal arts experience, the public person called for more professional degrees, including certificates and associates degrees; one caller observed that many people still look down on the latter.  Digital storytelling: the admissions director offered this recommendation on Twitter: “digital storytelling is the future for recruitment.”

My congratulations to VPR for assembling this panel and hosting a frank, challenging conversation.

 

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