What the Looming Higher-Ed Shakeout Means for Small College Towns

Sweet Briar College, affectionately known in my college days as “Sweets”

Two years after alumni rallied to save Sweet Briar College, raised millions of dollars and installed a new president, the small, liberal arts college north of Lynchburg still is in peril. The college admitted only 81 freshmen into its fall class — well below the 200 officials previously had estimated the institution needed to remain financially viable.

President Meredith Woo said spending came in significantly under budget last year, and the college can afford smaller class sizes. But the college is surviving on donor dollars, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Perhaps Sweet Briar will be able to reinvent itself as a smaller, niche institution. While few have come as close to the edge of disaster as Sweet Briar, dozens of other small liberal arts colleges are facing similar dilemmas.

According to the Journal, more than one-third of colleges with fewer than 3,000 full-time students had operating deficits in fiscal 2016, up from 20% in fiscal 2013. Likewise, finance chiefs of private, nonprofit colleges are increasingly pessimistic — only 51% indicated in a poll that their institutions will be financially or sustainable over the next five years, down from 65% the previous year.

Restructuring is rampant. Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., is dropping business and nursing programs, and eliminating residential living, to focus on training Catholic school teachers. Margrove College in Detroit is discontinuing undergraduate programs to concentrate on its graduate students. Wheelock University  in Boston has put its president’s house and a residence hall up for sale and has entered merger talks with Boston University.

Virginia has two dozen small, private, non-profit colleges, many located in small cities and towns. In many cases, they form the backbone of the local economy. As if rural/small town Virginia didn’t have enough other economic worries, non-metro Virginia could be experiencing the erosion of one of the few economic pillars it has left.

A handful of these institutions look rock solid — Washington & Lee University, the University of Richmond, and Liberty University have large and growing endowments, and have no trouble recruiting students. I don’t know enough about the others to draw any conclusions about their fiscal health, but it would behoove those interested in the well being of their communities to take a close look and make sure their local college isn’t about to become the next St. Paul’s College (now defunct) or Sweet Briar.

For readers’ edification, here are the private, non-profit schools in Virginia:

Appalachian School of Law — Grundy
Averett University — Danville
Bluefield College — Bluefield
Bridgewater College — Bridgewater
Christendom College — Front Royal
Eastern Mennonite University — Harrisonburg
Emory and Henry College — Damascus
Ferrum College — Ferrum
Hampden-Sydney College — Farmville
Hampton University — Hampton
Hollins University — Roanoke
Liberty University — Lynchburg
Lynchburg College — Lynchburg
Mary Baldwin University — Staunton
Marymount University — Arlington
Randolph-Macon College — Ashland
Randolph College — Lynchburg
Regent University — Virginia Beach
Roanoke College — Salem
Shenandoah University — Winchester
Sweet Briar College — Amherst
Union Presbyterian Seminary — Richmond
University of Richmond — Richmond
Virginia Union University — Richmond
Virginia Wesleyan University — Virginia Beach
Washington & Lee University — Lexington

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8 responses to “What the Looming Higher-Ed Shakeout Means for Small College Towns”

  1. Stephen Moret, president of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP), earned an Ed.D. in education management at the University of Pennsylvania. He had these observations to make about the predicament of small colleges:

    One of the more interesting challenges faced by many [small colleges] is that state research universities have developed honors programs that replicate the small classes and intimate experiences of small colleges in a larger campus context, with all the benefits that setting can bring (e.g., large career placement offices, more fields of study, broader array of student clubs, and big-time athletics, all at a lower tuition rate). As such, those honors programs offer what some consider to be a no-compromises experience. This development has contributed to a shift in enrollments from small colleges to larger institutions over the last couple decades or so, although it’s certainly not the only reason for that shift. I don’t know to what extent this has occurred in Virginia, because I’m not yet familiar enough with what our state universities offer here.

    Here’s an excerpt from a confidential case study I did on a small, private liberal arts college in the South. I’ve changed the name of the president of the institution (to Smith) and the name of the institution itself (to Memphis College), as the case study was prepared under a confidentiality agreement. …

    President Smith and others interviewed for this case study emphasized the enrollment challenge facing not just Memphis College but other small liberal arts colleges around the country. In particular, they referenced how honors colleges at big state schools (e.g., Ole Miss) have really hurt the small liberal arts colleges, as they purport to offer a no-compromise experience – an intimate, liberal arts education within a large (and relatively affordable) public university. Smith emphasized that 15 years ago, the top competitor to Memphis College likely was Rhodes College or Sewanee, whereas today their top competitor is the honors college at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), and their second biggest competitor is the honors college at Mississippi State University. Another senior administrator separately added, “While we compare ourselves against Sewanee, Davidson, [and so forth], our direct application overlaps [often] will be Ole Miss, Mississippi State, or LSU…so part of our job is to differentiate ourselves from those big schools and then further differentiate ourselves from the smaller schools.”

    The main reason I’m writing is to share a set of 20 “at-risk indicators” for small colleges that was detailed in a book I read, “Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence,” by James Martin, James E. Samels, et al (2009). I thought you might like to have this in case you do any follow-up writing on the subject of small colleges in Virginia. These stress indicators are discussed in greater detail in the book.

    1. Tuition discounting more than 35 percent. (Kindle Loc 208)
    2. Tuition dependency more than 85 percent. Loc 208
    3. Student default rate above 5 percent. Loc 220
    4. Debt service more than 10 percent of annual operating budget. Loc 220
    5. Less than one-to-three ratio between endowment and operating budget. Loc 232
    6. Average tuition increase greater than 8 percent for five years. Loc 232
    7. Deferred maintenance at least 40 percent unfunded. Loc 245
    8. Short-term bridge financing required in the final quarter of each fiscal year. Loc 258
    9. Less than 10 percent of operating budget dedicated to technology. Loc 258
    10. Average alumni gift is less than $75, and fewer than 20 percent of alumni give annually. Loc 269
    11. Institutional enrollment of one thousand students or fewer. Loc 269
    12. Conversion yield is 20 percent behind that of primary competitors. Loc 278
    13. Student retention is 10 percent behind that of primary competitors. Loc 291
    14. The institution is on probation, warning, or financial watch with a regional accreditor or a specialty degree licensor. Loc 291
    15. The majority of faculty do not hold terminal degrees. Loc 303
    16. Average age of full-time faculty is fifty-eight or higher. Loc 312
    17. The leadership team averages more than twelve years or fewer than three years of service at the institution. Loc 312
    18. No complete online program has been developed. Loc 324
    19. No new degree or certificate program has been developed for at least two years. Loc 338
    20. Academic governance and curriculum development systems require more than one year to approve a new degree program. Loc 338

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Steven Moret makes a keen observation. I do not doubt the truth of his suggestions. To my mind, the issue is another toxic in an already poisoned pond. One likely in its death throes, what we call US higher education.


      First, I’ll stepping back into a wide angled historical view for perspective. Then I’ll step forward into the present, narrowing down into Virginia finally. All done very briefly.

      Some say the French Revolution ushered in the modern world. That revolution worked in stages, going from one extreme to another, killing and destroying then collapsing over and over, only to reappear each time, in a different disguise to kill and destroy again on a growing scale. The massive killing went from 1792 through say 1945, with some pauses and happy times during the 19th century, and surely after 1945, thanks only to American power. The latter and most recent era that may soon come to an end, however, with mass killing resuming throughout long periods during our 21th century.

      As regards what got all this going, the first French Revolution that ignited at the end of the 18th Century:

      First its chaos collapsed the nation’s law and order. Then its terror collapsed the nation’s highly developed society, its classes and institutions built and refined by a rich and varied history and talented people over centuries.

      So everything in France abruptly changed.

      Suddenly Religion was outlawed, God was exiled, Laws were neutered. A violent and vicious free for all ensued in the name of Fraternity, Equality, and Liberty, tearing France apart. At first all the French recusants, those who actively resisted the “Revolution” were executed. Then those French folks, all of their types and classes, who refused to join in all the Revolution’s dictates – its pillages and thefts of culture and private property and history, and join in all the slaughter of innocents, all of these folks were also executed or exiled.

      Then, next, having run out of more people to murder, the Revolutionaries went on yet another killing spree in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, they killed or executed all of those who had failed to swear allegiance to the Revolution, or who looked like they might have failed to believe in it.

      These mass executions soon left a terrible void. The void launched the Revolution into mass hysteria that splintered the Revolution’s factions into cannibals eating one another, all on a mad quest for power and dominance, and finally just for survival both within the nation and outside its borders. And all this killing went on as other Frenchmen charged around Europe fighting wars with most everyone in sight or nearby.

      This mass hysteria lasted until the nation and its bewildered people fell exhausted into the hands of tyrant unlike any other since Alexander the Great. Napoleon. A 1000 year Genius of organization, efficiency, leadership and war-fighting, Napoleon changed the World forever. He fired and forged what was left of an exhausted France into a new roiling mass of Frenchmen bent on revenge, rape and pillage of yet more foreigners and nearby nations in the name of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity. This virulent nationalism was the World’s first modern industrial strength administrative state bent on conquering as much of the world as it could grab and shake to death.

      The results, a murderous rampage that killed millions and destroyed hundreds of societies, cultures and civilizations built over two millennium between the Atlantic and Urals, finally exhausted itself and collapsed in 1815.

      The result collapsed Europe’s gene pool along with its social and political stability. Thereafter Europe burped along on parochial see saw conflicts, brutal small wars, failed local revolutions and monarchies, as these nasty events combined with modern man’s growing mastery of the burgeoning capitalist system as it was now being fueled by an exploding industrial and scientific age that would change most everything. This included shaking man’s understanding of himself, his place in his world and cosmos.

      So, for example, the rising of whole new classes of people – the urban poor industrial workers (Marx’s proletariat), and the rising commercial middle class beneath the industrial and obscenely rich and powerful corporate moguls (Marx’s bourgeoisie) along with their corporate industrial cartels and trusts. These new forces grew alongside a rising class of intellectuals who were flooding and being corrupted by the rise of the modern universities and well as the outlier urban pockets of political thought and action driven by new ideologies, alongside military commanders schooled to kill on a mass scale using newly lethal machines also ruthlessly organized on a vast scale –

      All of these newly powerful social players and forces combined with growing public and private confusion, and social voids and lost generations, left in the wake of these powerful new forces. Such as the growing fear that God was Dead, alongside the loss of stable dependable families, towns and local societies that had knit people’s lives together over untold generations.

      For now, for the first time, TOTAL WAR, and the threat of TOTAL WAR consuming whole societies and cultures and means of survival itself, all of these new threat suddenly combined with new ideologies whose dictates pitted class against class and race against race, using old and new grievances that now were fueled and driven by the rise of Superman, much of it legitimatized by new Hegelian, Nietzschean, Marxian philosophies.

      Thus were bred a powerful array of new ideologies that replaced God and Fear of God altogether. And in so doing along with other forces, handed over God’s Power to man for the first time in human History. Now Man Alone, as superman, had armed himself with science,and modern industry and technology, and new information and ways of communicating faster and otherwise doing things now for the first time in history not only controlled his own destiny but the destiny of all mankind, and indeed the world itself.

      This exalted state of omniscient human being first arose in the disguise of a modern State, its powers and competencies and reach, in its most distilled form within the Prussian State, the first leviathan State that finally controlled all the modern levers of truly awesome power – the Pussian government, the Prussian military, the Prussian corporate means of production, the Prussian institutions of sciences and the arts, and the teaching and learning and education of the Prussian people, these institutions were the very best, most modern, most advanced institutions in the entire world. So good were these institutions that they rightly acted as the issuer and the dictator of all wisdom, culture, and belief to the citizens of the Prussian State. The state now was the source of meaning and purpose for the life of the citizens themselves, collectively and individually.

      Thus, from the conclusion of the Franco Prussian War and all its horrible consequences there hung over the peoples in Europe, in addition to their colonial empires, the near constant threat of total desolation by a ravaging war of a foreign power or increasingly also internal faction claiming power, all these latter threats now focused and magnified by the rise of dime a dozen ideologies, ever shiftling types of communists and fascists and anarchists bomb-throwers maneuvering and scheming and propagandizing to seize control of Leviathan states.

      In short, Men now had the potential power and means to control, kill and enslave millions of people, and did before the first half of 20th century was over.

      What for goodness sake do these comments have to do with Mr. Moret’s comments on higher education in small colleges and research universities in America? That comes next.

      1. The Prussians invented the modern system of education, right?

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Well, the answer there is quite complicated. I would say that largely it was created there in its most distilled form, as an integral part of the modern state’s machinery. France, and other places, drawing on the example of Napoleon, had versions in a less distilled and efficient form – hence for example the French academy that dictated French art, thus destroying its vitality and growth, killing it until replaced by outside rebels, and the French language too.

          Of course this too was not unique but common most everywhere over time, whether it be in Italy during the Renaissance or whatever, since the time of Copernicus and Galileo, and even in Britain too which likely was the most fluid for a variety of reasons, for example, the Scots and Irish power to compete and upset, not to mention the growth of several competing power centers within the state. The centralization happened very quickly, bringing order out of the chaos of the Holy Roman Empire and its remnants.

          But I believe it is fare to say that Prussian education, from science to culture to military arts, its control and manipulation and funding was the most advanced model in the world, and emulated too.

        2. LarrytheG Avatar

          I think you’re confusing K-12-type compulsory public education” with education in general and tertiary education (higher ed).

          ‘education’ is a human endeavor that’s been with the world since the time of Plato and before…

          “literacy”… the ability to communicate with other people in a common language …. evolves as culture evolves and the world that people live in – changes … as people learn about the natural world and create and invent things that improve their world.

          “education” is not some cruel and corrupt concept inficted on a helpless population by evil-doers… which is sort of the flavor I get from reading Reed’s tome… good lord…

          Higher ED, ESPECIALLY, has ALWAYS been a VOLUNTARY putsuit from any number of “providers” one could CHOOSE. The fact that people organized into govt also offered a State version did not change the fact that it was still optional…

          Now.. Compulsory Primary and Secondary education is a different horse of another color as different nations around the world decided to make it compulsory – but even then – in many countries including this one – you are free to be “educated” in a number of different ways besides the “State” version.

          How “education” around the world has evolved into a “bad” thing inflicted on hapless people to the point of threatening the concept of civilization itself… what can I say? Who KNEW? Perhaps there should be a mandatory course in this “educating” folks to the awful Truth about Higher Ed and all it’s terrible variants, eh?

          I don’t know who has been drinking what but I’d recommend it be capped and kept from further human consumption.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    Morets’ observations are interesting and informative… and a curiosity as to why Moret has an interest in this area. Is it professional or otherwise? Do small colleges occupy some particular niche in the bigger economic development scheme for the State?

    and it leads one to also wonder – what is it that these small colleges offer than that differentiate themselves from other colleges… what “value” are they offering that cannot be obtained at other institutions?

    The other interesting thing is that if the premise, heard here at times, is that if the larger institutions are bloated and wasteful with too much overhead and other layered on extra costs – can the smaller institutions beat them on value for a standard degree in Liberal Arts…etc..???

    and then I could be churlish and ask if these smaller institutions can’t beat the bigger ones on price…. does that mean the bigger ones are not unreasonable?

    I think Moret points out some of the many advantages of the bigger institutions… but all those things don’t come for free…

    IF Liberty U is a private institution competition against other institutions including public ones.. and it’s costs/tuition is in the same ballpark… does that mean that tuition costs pretty much across the board are “competitive” and presumably not “over priced’?

    I’d be interesting in hearing more from Moret … if he was so willing as would be Bacon… really a feather in the cap of the blog!

  3. DLunsford Avatar

    Shenandoah University in Winchester. I know they are private and I’m pretty sure non-profit.

    1. You’re absolutely right — I’ve added Shenandoah University to the list.

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