Why I'm Stubbornly Optimistic About the Future of Small Colleges

A contrarian argument.

May 20, 2018

Last week we learned that yet another small college, Oregon's Marylhurst University, is closing.

Higher ed publications are full of stories with depressing titles such as Days of Reckoning and The Culling of Higher Ed Begins.

Moody’s Investor Services warns that small nonprofit closures are set to double or triple in the years ahead.  The disciples of disruptive innovation believe that half of all universities could be bankrupt in 15 years.  

A partial list of recently closed, closing, or merging small private colleges would include:

Note:  I can’t find a complete list anywhere - can you help?

Of course, this list of schools that are closing (or merging) does not begin to touch on all the colleges and universities that are closing (humanities) departments and laying off faculty.  Follow Bryan Alexander’s Queen's Sacrifice writing for the best descriptions and analysis of this trend/  

Anyone who cares about the future of the small college in the US would be insane not to worry.  Even a cursory look at the demographics of undergraduate demand would give the most ardent optimist pause. 

By 2031, the number of new high school graduates is projected to drop by 3 percent in Wisconsin, 13 percent in Michigan, 8 percent in Ohio, 13 percent in West Virginia, 19 percent in Vermont, and 16 percent in Maine and New Hampshire.  

Still, I am not particularly over-worried about the future of small (nonprofit) college. The next 20 years is sure to witness the downsizing, merging, and closings at a greater pace and severity that we have so far witnessed.  These college downsizes/mergers/closures will likely be concentrated in states with both particularly challenging demographics, and a large number of small nonprofits - the Northeast and Midwest.

At the same time, however, we will see the growth and flourishing of an equal or greater number of institutions.  The good news story of small nonprofit colleges will get less attention.  Those schools that increase quality, enrollment, and impact will be areas of rapid population growth - such as the Southeast, Southwest, and the West.

Yes, the demographic and economic picture presents challenges to US higher education, and particularly to smaller institutions.  We should not downplay these challenges.

We should also temper our concern with the knowledge that colleges are resilient organizations.  Life inside academia may make it feel as if change comes slowly, and that our colleges and universities are ill-equipped to take the steps necessary to adapt to changing circumstances.

The reality is more complicated.

The history of higher education is not one of stasis, but of continuous renewal and reinvention.  The evidence is so pervasive for change that we are blinded by its ubiquity.

Our campuses are more diverse, eclectic, and energetic today than at any time in the past.

It is easy to pine for a golden age of higher education - those G.I. Bill / post-Sputnik / baby boomer years - but we wouldn’t want to go back if we could.

The other reason that I’m particularly bullish about the future of small colleges has everything to do with the people who work at these institutions.  These are brilliant people.  They understand the challenges. The vast majority of the institutions in which these brilliant people work are taking the steps necessary to build resiliency and relevancy in the 21st century.   

Nonprofits will be particularly resilient, as they need only to figure out how to balance revenues with costs.  Unlike the for-profit sector, which is driven by the logic of capital, non-profits are driven by mission.  Those schools with a compelling mission will largely find ways to navigate the very real challenges of the current economic environment.

We need to find a way to balance the distressing stories of school closings and Queen’s Sacrifices with the more positive - and I argue more relevant - stories of small college successes.

We need to get better at sharing those instances where schools have figured out how to grow new programs, recruit more and better students, and place their institutions on a firmer financial footing.

Efforts to discover the positive story of higher education should not be viewed as naive or Pollyannaish. The setbacks and challenges should be acknowledged.  But the real story of higher education, like many 21st century stories, is better than we realize.

The overall trends around higher education point to growth in both quality and reach.  Indeed, it would be hard to see things any other way.  We should not forget that the US is projected to grow to 400 million people by 2050. Further, despite almost everything we are constantly told, the US will be a richer nation. GDP per capita in the US is projected to rise to from about $57K today to over $87K in 2050.

The U.S. in 2050 will be a bigger and richer country than it is today.  This shift will ultimately bode well for the future of higher education in general, and specifically for the future of small colleges.

Do you have any positive small college news to share?


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