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In N.H. and Elsewhere, Slipping Enrollment Spells Steep Challenges for Small Colleges

courtesy of Colby-Sawyer College
Colby-Sawyer College, in New London, had about 1,200 undergraduate students enrolled last fall.

New Hampshire is no stranger to the myriad challenges — declining enrollments, precarious finances, a struggle to compete with larger institutions — facing small colleges today.

Five colleges or universities operating in New Hampshire have closed their doors since 2002, according to the Department of Education, and each of them had fewer than 2,000 full-time students. 

As Scott Carlson, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education who has covered the plight of small colleges across the country, explained on Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, smaller institutions often find themselves in a much more delicate balancing act when it comes to staying financially solvent.

“The smaller the college is, the less margin of error it has when trying to float the boat, so to speak,” Carlson said. “Larger institutions have more students that can support more programs. They also have more students to support more administrative needs.”

Beyond juggling their academic missions, colleges and universities must also keep pace with a number of federal regulations — and to do so, they rely on administrators to keep up with paperwork, to serve students and otherwise fulfill those requirements. Paying people to keep up with those tasks can also strain small colleges’ bottom lines.

And because these institutions rely heavily on students’ tuition to sustain both academic and administrative programs, a downturn in the number of students enrolling at smaller schools can be especially difficult.

Susan Stuebner, the new president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London, pointed out that demographic trends in store for the next few decades are likely to spell out continued challenges for small colleges — especially in the Northeast and Midwest, where the numbers of high school graduates are expected to keep falling.

One report from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects that the number of high school graduates here will fall by 18 percent between 2008 and 2020. 

“The pool of students who are coming to our colleges has really shrunk,” Stuebner said on The Exchange. “Not only are we competing with other privates, we’re also competing with the publics in more ways than we used to in the past.”

A decline in enrollment can also have an effect on small schools’ ability to offer affordable financial aid packages to students in need. As Carlson explained, colleges and universities’ funding models often consist of “a series of subsidies” — wealthier students who can afford to pay more on their tuition bills subsidize those who can’t pay as much; the revenue generated from lucrative academic programs often help to keep other, smaller ones alive.

But that model, too, is shifting for smaller colleges, according to Stuebner.

Over the last few years, she said, more affluent families who in the past might have been paying higher tuition prices have started expecting more discounts through the financial aid process. That makes an already competitive, challenging recruitment process even more challenging for small schools, she said.

“Students coming from families with means are negotiating for financial aid in almost a rabid manner in ways we had not seen before,” Stuebner said. “They’re really savvy about the process. At my previous institution we would have families call up and say, ‘We expect X discount, and if you can’t match that, this other school is.’ ”

And when these schools are forced to close, as some have learned in New Hampshire, the loss of the institution can be devastating not only for those who work and study there.

Steve, a Nottingham resident who called in to The Exchange, said he saw this firsthand as a faculty member at the now-shuttered Chester College, which closed in 2012 after years of struggling enrollment and finances.

“It was painful and horrible to observe what happens when a small school doesn’t make it,” Steve said.

But often, Carlson said, it’s not just the faculty or students who are hurt when a small college closes.

“All across the rust belt and in the northwest, this is sort of the last thing that employs people in the town,” Carlson said. “And if the college goes out of business, the town dies.”

So what are some of New Hampshire’s small colleges trying to do to stave off this kind of decline?

For one, incoming Franklin Pierce University President Kim Mooney said her institution is taking steps to better monitor its finances — to identify struggling programs in time to, perhaps, figure out ways to save them before it becomes too late.

“We need to know the cost of the student coming in the door for particular academic programs, what it costs to educate that person well,” Mooney said. “Once we really understand that broadly, we’ll then take that template and apply it to other divisions of the university, from student life to athletics to even the finance office.”

Those on the show said small schools are also increasingly turning to partnerships to fill in the gaps in their curriculum or to offer students opportunities without shouldering too big a burden in trying to sustain individual programs on their own.

As small colleges try to adapt to the new realities of higher education, Carlson said we’re likely to see more collaborating on academic programs, or sharing “back office” administrative operations — or, in some cases, even merging together entirely, though that process can carry its own set of challenges.

To keep attracting students — and, in turn, to stay afloat — Carlson and Stuebner said it’s becoming increasingly important for these smaller schools to find a way to stand out amid a crowded educational landscape.

“The buffet-style model of higher education is very hard to pull off, if you’re a small college,” Carlson said. “If you’re a small college, you basically have to focus on: What is it that we do really well? What are our strengths? And what is it we do differently from others around us?”

At Colby Sawyer, Stuebner said that’s meant taking a hard look at specific areas where the college can excel, instead of trying to be all things to all students.

“If we try to do it all, we’re not going to do anything well,” she said.

For more on the issues facing small institutions across the country: 

Casey McDermott is a senior news editor at New Hampshire Public Radio. Throughout her time as an NHPR reporter and editor, she has worked with colleagues across the newsroom to deepen the station’s accountability coverage, data journalism and audience engagement across platforms.

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