Nowhere is the landscape more perilous for small private colleges than in New England. In just the past few years, declining enrollments and fiscal woes have prompted Marian Court College in Swampscott to close, Wheelock College to merge with Boston University and Mount Ida College to cash out to the University of Massachusetts. And this is likely only the beginning. The Boston Globe recently profiled 25 New England colleges that have experienced a decline in enrollment between 1996 to 2016.
Feeling the pressure to boost enrollment, colleges hire consultants, develop strategic growth plans and launch capital campaigns, often with the goal of making their physical campuses — residence halls, student centers, academic buildings — more desirable and "state-of-the-art." Yet unless these small colleges dramatically rethink their business models, what a “campus” experience can be and how students can learn, they may suffer the same fate as Marian Court, Wheelock and Mount Ida.
At the root of the problem is an unsustainable business model based on increasing enrollments and ever-rising tuition rates. Since 1978, U.S. college tuition has risen over 1,000 percent. Nationwide, 68 percent of college students graduate with an average debt of $30,000.
At the root of the problem is an unsustainable business model based on increasing enrollments and ever-rising tuition rates
Non-top tier small private colleges, like Mount Ida, ask students and their families to pay yearly tuition ranging from $20,000 to $70,000 per year for degrees that don’t often lead to high-paying employment. Increasingly, prospective students and families don’t want to pay or take on the debt to attend.
In addition, these small colleges still primarily court traditional 18- to 24-year-old college students, a population that’s shrinking, according to population experts, and already being aggressively recruited by wealthier private colleges and public universities that can often offer more financial aid or lower tuition.
Many small colleges are not equipped to attract and meet the needs of the fastest growing student population: nontraditional students, which includes older students, working adults and adults with families. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 38 percent of college students are now older than 25 years old. To accommodate these students, small colleges have to offer a significant number of non-residential, part-time courses and degree programs, as well as the flexibility and convenience of off-campus and online learning options.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Harvard Business School professor and innovation guru Clayton Christianson envision a world where placed-based education wanes in importance. With the advance of technology and improved quality of online learning programs, education will increasingly happen wherever learners are, or at least in a combination of in-person and online learning. Other than large research universities, with numerous doctoral programs and the highest level of scientific research activity and resources, the need for brick and mortar campuses will diminish.
One example of where education might be headed is Western Governors University, which operates out of a small office park on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah. WGU enrolls 80,000 fully online students. The employment rate of WGU graduates is 81 percent, compared to the national average of 74 percent. And with no physical campus, the annual tuition is $6,000.
Yet, many colleges continue to equate strategic growth and survival with expanding or updating their physical campus. As recently as 2013, Mount Ida launched a $12 million project to build a new student center, fitness center, academic facilities and residence halls. Regardless, tuition remained high, enrollment stagnated and the college went out of business. This is a problem for larger schools, too. In 2011, UMass Boston embarked on a 10-year expansion plan to build its first ever dormitory and state-of-the-art laboratories. Six years later, UMass Boston announced it had a $30 million deficit and enrollment flat-lined.
... education will increasingly happen wherever learners are
Colleges would do well to explore innovative ways to either reduce their physical campus footprint, or to expand their campuses in ways that allow them to reduce tuition and improve accessibility for nontraditional students. This might include a "community campus" partnership -- a decentralized approach where colleges take advantage of underutilized spaces typically found within most urban or semi-urban areas, such as movie theaters that sit empty from morning until late afternoon or open or unused communal space in office buildings or at a public library. All of these spaces — often in the heart of communities — can be places where faculty and students gather for courses.
Let’s hope the next small private college that faces declining enrollment and fiscal stress pauses before forging ahead with construction of a new student fitness center. Instead, college leaders, faculty, students and alumni should imagine what learning and the college experience could look like — independent of buildings.