Lots of small colleges around the country are struggling financially and looking for new ways to stay afloat.
The rate of small college closures has increased in recent years. Analysts predict it'll stay on the rise in certain areas of the country, including the Northeast.
In the latest installment of WBUR's series "Small Colleges, Big Challenges," we hear from David Chard. He's the former president of Wheelock College, the small teaching college in Boston that merged in June of last year with the school of education at Boston University. Chard, who's now a professor and interim dean at BU's Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, told us about the highs and lows of Wheelock's merger with BU and what other schools might take from it.
David Chard: Well, It's a very different world here, right? BU is a very large institution. It's like being in a small city, where Wheelock ... we were located on four acres of campus and everyone saw everyone face to face on a daily basis. People miss that. At the same time, I think people realize there are incredible assets and resources and opportunities at a place like BU. And for the most part, I think staff and faculty who have relocated to Boston University feel really happy with the opportunities they've had since the merger ... I think most of our students — the vast majority of them — have been very successful here. They've found majors that are suitable to them. BU has been tremendously supportive of the new Wheelock College here.
The challenges, I think, are things that remain questions, like the Fenway campus -- which is now part of Boston University's larger footprint in the city of Boston. It's unclear how that campus will be used in the long term. For folks who are part of the former Wheelock College, we go there and it feels a little bit like a ghost town. And that's challenging, I think, emotionally for people. We are still figuring out the identity of the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. ... We're trying to create something new. There's some impatience associated with that.
Steve Brown: Is there a point of no return for a college before a merger ... that they hang on too long and things just don't go right, that they're not good for a merger?
This is a point of discussion across the country right now. People are wondering at what point is it too late, where you've burned too much of whatever assets you had to try to stay viable and then find out that you haven't. One of the reasons why we chose to look for a merger partner while we were still financially very strong was that we looked into the future and realized that five to six years from now ... we would have not been looked on as a strong partner. And I think sometimes institutions want to exercise just sheer will to stay independent, and they wait too long and then they don't look financially very strong and look like a good partner to work with.
What should students and parents looking at small liberal arts colleges take into consideration when deciding whether or not to apply?
I think, of course, parents often want what their children want, and, I think, look at small institutions as terrific, sort of almost family-like places to study. I think what parents also need to pay attention to is the size of an institution's endowment. There's public information about the health, the financial health of institutions. The state of Massachusetts ... [has] moved to try to create some sort of an early warning metric, really to warn presidents and trustees of when you may not be able to fulfill the agreement to get students through their four years ... And we hope that colleges and universities are being respectful of families and trying to protect at least the four years necessary to get a group of students through their programs.
This segment aired on October 22, 2019.