Coronavirus May Mark The End For Many Small Liberal Arts Colleges

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The Henry Pfeiffer Library at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. (Courtesy)
The Henry Pfeiffer Library at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. (Courtesy)

Financial difficulties worsened by the coronavirus pandemic may lead small liberal arts colleges across the country to cancel classes forever.

MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, is closing this month after 174 years. It's the latest in a growing list of small, private liberal arts colleges in danger of folding as the coronavirus pandemic brings long-term economic trends into stark relief for many businesses and nonprofits.

Before the pandemic, President Beverly Rodgers says 2020 would have marked the college’s third year in deficit. Rodgers and her staff tried working with local agencies and calling on alumni for additional funds, but they realized they couldn't raise the money the college needed.

Beverly Rodgers, president of MacMurray College. (Courtesy)
Beverly Rodgers, president of MacMurray College. (Courtesy)

The college almost closed a deal with a developer to buy back its dorms, she says, but that fell through when the virus hit.

“If we had gotten the deal, I think we could have made it at least through another year. But I'm not sure that I want to blame that on the pandemic,” she says. “Small colleges across the nation were facing very difficult times even before the virus.”

Accrediting organizations such as the Higher Learning Commission enforce strict rules on how colleges close, she says. For one, closing colleges need to reach a memorandum of understanding with other schools that allows students to easily transfer.

MacMurray students can choose from 11 colleges and universities that made formal agreements to take them, even those with less than 30 hours of classes to complete, she says. Plus, MacMurray’s Division III coaches have worked to find athletes spots on sports teams at other schools.

But MacMurray faculty face a different reality. While the college wants to help faculty find new roles, it doesn’t control what positions are open, Rodgers says.

To help faculty with job searching, the college encouraged the schools it made agreements with to hire MacMurray professors and sent over their biography pages. Several faculty members have found new positions, she says.

The Board of Trustees voted to close the college, but Rodgers says she agrees with the “incredibly disappointing” decision. Carrying the responsibility for making tough decisions and disposing of properties is emotionally draining, she says.

“I certainly did not want to be the last president of this long and historic institution. I've never failed at a job before, and I would like to say that I didn't fail at this one, but I failed to pull it out,” she says. “And it doesn't sit well with me.”

MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, will close at the end of the spring term. (Courtesy)
MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, will close at the end of the spring term. (Courtesy)

Prior to the board’s decision to close, MacMurray developed a plan to broaden its degree programs and reach more students if it remained open. But Rodgers says there wasn’t enough funding or time to implement the new strategy.

The average college discount rate for private colleges is more than 50%, meaning most students pay less than half of their tuition with the rest coming from grants and fundraising. That’s not a sustainable model for small private colleges like MacMurray, she says.

For other colleges in a similar position, Rodgers says don’t procrastinate. The world of higher education is disconnected from the workforce and how today’s students learn, she says — and that needs to change.

“Higher education is not nimble. We are steeped in tradition, and we are not always able to move as quickly as we need to,” she says. “There needs to be a remake of higher education as a business model, in my opinion.”

Many other colleges in the U.S. also struggle with declining enrollments, rising competitive costs and an insufficient endowment on top of additional challenges caused by the coronavirus crisis.

Scott Carlson, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education, predicts more closures in the future. Small colleges are under pressure from higher operating costs and increasing competition from bigger institutions with more resources, he says.

A lot of small private colleges were founded in small towns, he says, and now that’s a disadvantage because many students want to work in cities. This has led students to choose bigger, better-endowed colleges over the past several years, he says.

“It's leaving these small colleges in a tough position, trying to attract a dwindling number of students in a high-cost environment,” he says. “And that spells disaster, I think, for the fall, particularly if these students can't come back to campus because of COVID-19.”

Small private colleges often depend on tuition and room and board to stay afloat. Fees for room and board make up for some of the money colleges discount from students’ tuition, Carlson says.

A number of private colleges are asking the state to help them stay afloat during this crisis. States have an internal lobbying arm for small colleges, but this money isn’t enough to carry a school facing serious financial trouble through the year, he says.

Though public colleges receive support from states, Carlson says many of these institutions will also face financial issues further down the line. The economic devastation caused by the pandemic will lead states to cut back on funding, he predicts.

Funding cuts may not impact big schools like Pennsylvania State University, for example, but rather small public institutions like Mansfield University of Pennsylvania, he says. Small public colleges have also faced competition from bigger institutions in their states in recent years — and Carlson says the impact of a school closing goes beyond a single campus.

“These small colleges are sort of the last economic engines of these places, so if the students don't show up, the colleges are in trouble,” he says. “And then by extension, the small towns themselves are in trouble.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this story for broadcast with Tinku RayAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on May 13, 2020.


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Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


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Allison Hagan is a digital producer for Here & Now.



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