The Future of the Tiny Liberal Arts College

Presidents of tiny liberal arts colleges work to make themselves heard above talk of mergers and large institutions.

November 11, 2016
 
Marlboro College / St. John’s College

At first glance, it sounds like a grim affair: a group of 15 presidents from the country’s tiniest liberal arts institutions met in New York City in June, even amid experts’ predictions of small-college mergers and closings.

The group certainly faces challenges. Small colleges generally have been noted for being highly dependent on tuition and for having high discount rates. Small colleges unable to increase revenue could drive a significant spike in closures and mergers by 2017, a Moody’s Investors Service report said last year. And the challenges liberal arts colleges face with a skeptical public worried about job preparedness are frequently discussed -- even for those colleges that aren’t tiny.

Attendees who were at the meeting report the mood was far from somber, though. The summit drew together leaders from institutions with enrollments below 800, and those leaders rarely if ever meet with such a closely tailored group of their peers. The presidents said they were more than ready to talk about the headwinds and opportunities they face.

Listen to them, and you’ll hear several positive takeaways. The smallest of colleges help many students who are not suited to larger campuses, they said. Tiny colleges are also important higher education laboratories able to quickly experiment with new curricular, admissions or business model changes, they continued. They also hope small institutions can find better ways to tell students and families about their benefits.

“There was this sense of appreciation and almost relief of being with one’s peers,” said Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, former president of Marlboro College in Vermont and the leader of the talks on that June day. “I would say that, really, most of the discussion and the most lively discussion revolved around the benefits of small scale.”

McCulloch-Lovell led the discussion after the Endeavor Foundation decided to call together the small liberal arts colleges, which were all coed, secular institutions that are primarily residential in nature. The foundation, formerly called the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, invited colleges that maintained an emphasis on face-to-face learning, even if they have some online programs.

The foundation did not release a full list of attendees, although college presidents recounted a group of leaders from institutions of varying size and status, like the 704-undergraduate Bennington College in Vermont and the 79-student Shimer College in Chicago, which is in the process of merging into North Central College in Illinois. Eight of 15 institutions with presidents in attendance were in New England or rural New York, McCulloch-Lovell said. Four were from the Midwest, two were from the South and one was from the Southwest.

The tiny colleges face a perception that they are too small to operate, McCulloch-Lovell said. While some may want to grow enrollment, McCulloch-Lovell said many have strong models and no interest in drastic expansion.

Presidents believe their colleges are important to low-income and first-generation students, McCulloch-Lovell said. They see their institutions as communities with close interaction between faculty members and students that can help students graduate.

“Probably every president who comes through your door talks about a learning community,” McCulloch-Lovell said. “But they were making a case for the student actually learning how to behave and understand one’s individual effect in a wider community at a scale where you can really understand it.”

A problem, however, is telling prospective students and families about the benefits of small scale. One idea discussed at the meeting was doing more research into those effects. Each individual institution represented a small sample of students, McCulloch-Lovell said. But there was interest in aggregating data across institutions.

There was also interest in future marketing changes, Endeavor Foundation President Julie J. Kidd said in a statement. The foundation periodically holds dialogue sessions to talk about current higher education topics. It considers supporting small, residential, undergraduate liberal arts colleges a priority.

“The discussion affirmed the benefits of small scale: small class size, meaningful faculty-student interactions, and participation in a strong academic and campus community, among others,” Kidd said in her statement. “One common challenge is marketing: How can very small colleges with limited budgets be more visible to students and families? Endeavor is currently considering the potential of a marketing study to explore how these colleges might be more effective in presenting their benefits and strengths.”

Taken on its own, a marketing plan might not be enough to help the tiny colleges overcome headwinds they face with students and finances. They simply do not have the benefits of scale that a larger institution would have, said Susan Resneck Pierce, former president of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting.

“The problem for those small institutions is they all still need a registrar, they all still need an admissions staff,” she said. “There are certain things you still need to have whether you are 800 or 8,000 or 50,000. To sustain themselves financially in this market has become more and more challenging.”

Many small liberal arts colleges are also under more pressure because of population shifts. Many, like colleges in Vermont, are in sparsely populated areas where demographics show a dwindling population of high school graduates.

“If you’re located in a more populated area, then there are many more options that present themselves outside your front door,” said Richard Kneedler, president emeritus of Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and former interim president at Rockford College in Illinois. “The small ones remotely located need to somehow transcend their locations if they’re not satisfied with their size.”

Recent data show small colleges have been most squeezed by tuition discounting. Small institutions posted a 43.7 percent tuition discount rate for all undergraduates in 2015-16, according to a study released earlier this year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Small institutions’ discount rates have grown for each of the last two years and came in more than eight percentage points higher than they did a decade ago. They were also higher in 2015-16 than discounting at larger classes of institution.

But the NACUBO data is not a perfect reflection of the smallest of colleges. It classifies small institutions as those with total enrollment below 4,000. The average small institution in the discounting study had 1,798 undergraduates.

Smaller colleges that measure enrollment in the hundreds do not face the same level of competition and pressure as the slightly larger ones that measure it in the thousands, said Thomas M. O’Reilly, president of Pine Manor College outside of Boston, which typically has enrollment between 450 and 500 students.

“Everyone has this viewpoint that small colleges will be rolled up or closed,” O’Reilly said. “The microcolleges are not really facing the same competition that the big middle set of colleges is facing. They are all competing for the same piece of the student population pie. They are all looking for that big middle, and I think what we were able to bring out is we each are doing something very specific, very focused, very distinguishable.”

The tiny colleges have the chance to function as a laboratory for new techniques in pedagogy, career activities and student retention, O’Reilly said.

“We’re small enough that we can work with a handful of students, and if it works for them, it can be quickly spread across the rest of the programs we’re offering,” he said. “If it doesn’t we can quickly stop -- just as importantly -- without having made a major investment.”

Mariko Silver, the president of Bennington College, agreed. At Bennington, every student spends several winter weeks doing field work in jobs or internships. Bennington also has short-term pop-up courses on current events, like one focused on the election this fall.

In addition, Bennington has rolled out alternative application processes, such as a dimensional admissions option in which students create their own application portfolios. That type of admissions process would be hard to implement at a larger institution with many more applicants, Silver said.

The June meeting showed small colleges are trying many different things, she said.

“I was quite struck, even in that relatively small grouping of relatively small schools, by the extraordinary range of types of institutions and really interesting practices,” Silver said. “It can be hard to see sometimes, from the outside, how much is going on in these small institutions.”

Silver started as president at Bennington in July 2013. She was previously senior adviser to the president at Arizona State University and has also held positions at Columbia University, in President Obama’s administration and with former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

Coming from Arizona State, with its enrollment of more than 50,000, allows Silver to easily see contrasts in institutional size and scale, she said. She can also see how tiny colleges are important to the U.S. higher education ecosystem.

“The national conversation has been very much focused on scaling up individual institutions,” Silver said. “One of the things that I feel makes American higher education the envy of the world is a real diversification of institution types -- an ecosystem.”

Marlboro College’s current president, Kevin F. F. Quigley, pointed out diversity within the tiny liberal arts colleges in a recent column in his college’s magazine. In addition to Shimer and Bennington, attendees of the June meeting included St. John’s College, which has a Great Books curriculum and campuses in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, N.M.; the College of the Atlantic, which has students design their own course of study in human ecology; and Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vt., which is a work college that has students working on the campus, he wrote.

A look at attendees shows no shortage of changes in recent years -- and, sometimes, tension over those changes. St. John’s, which is seeking a successor for its longtime Annapolis campus president, shifted to a new governance structure earlier this year that currently has its Santa Fe campus president overseeing college-wide functions like finance and admissions, a change that prompted worries from some of its alumni, faculty members and a prominent former board member. Pine Manor decided in 2013 to admit men to all programs as it struggled with enrollment. Marlboro last year decided to try to boost enrollment and its academic profile by offering full scholarships to high-achieving students in every state -- a move projected to spike its discount rate to 65 percent. (This paragraph has been corrected to note that each St. John's campus still has a president.)

“While we had considerable differences among us, each of these 15 tiny colleges believes that the intimacy of a small college setting is essential to fostering collegial, mentoring relationships between students and faculty, which other larger institutions aspire to but rarely achieve,” Quigley wrote about the meeting. “Among this very special group of colleges, Marlboro stands out for our intensive focus on community and, in particular, for the Vermont-style town meeting that provides our community a role in the college’s governance.”

Many small colleges have the benefit of a unique niche, said Hal Hartley, senior vice president at the Council of Independent Colleges. Those without distinct curricula or other emphases face more challenges because they don’t stand out as much.

“You have to continually work at it, make sure you’re hiring faculty that are really committed to this approach,” Hartley said. “But it can be an incredibly rich experience for students to have classes where it might be eight to 10 students in a class. You get this very focused, individualized attention.”

CIC is working on an analysis of the financial strengths of its member institutions, Hartley said. A preliminary finding is that small institutions are demonstrating greater financial stability than some with more than 3,000 students.

“We haven’t drilled down enough in it yet to see what’s going on there, because it seems counterintuitive,” Hartley said. “But at any rate, what that has said to us is size isn’t necessarily your destiny. Just because you’re small doesn’t mean that you can’t survive financially, that there’s not a viable model.”

Of course, many small colleges have small endowments to match. Pine Manor’s endowment is about $10 million, O’Reilly said. Bennington’s is about $20 million, according to Silver.

But there is evidence that small colleges can successfully raise large sums of money. St. John’s College on Monday announced a pair of $25 million cash gifts from two of its board members. The gifts will be divided between the college’s endowment and annual fund, with the endowment getting a larger share.

Finances were not a major point of discussion at the June meeting, said McCulloch-Lovell, the former Marlboro president who led the gathering. But she acknowledged that presidents are looking for efficiencies on campus.

At another fundamental level, McCulloch-Lovell saw a significant shift in the language used around higher education over the last decade. The recession sparked sharper questions about cost and value, she said. She started to hear more language about students’ return on investment, which is hard to apply to some liberal arts tracks.

Still, the liberal arts build important skills like critical thinking, historical understanding, teamwork, problem solving and communication, she said. Small liberal arts colleges should be wary of competing only on the terms of value or return on investment, McCulloch-Lovell argued.

“We all need to do a much, much better job of explaining what it is and why it’s important and why that’s going to help you adapt to a changing economy,” McCulloch-Lovell said. “Talk about the quality of life over time, over a lifetime.”

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