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Reflections on the Future of Small, Private, Rural Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)

The EvoLLLution | Reflections on the Future of Small, Private, Rural Liberal Arts Colleges (Part 1)
An unwillingness to adapt to shifting market conditions and a strict belief in the long-term viability of the traditional model of higher education could be the downfall of many small, private institutions.

The closing of small, private colleges—especially those isolated in rural areas—is likely to get barely a mention in regional news coverage, but the announced closing of Sweet Briar College was covered by most of the media on the East Coast. That announcement took many by surprise because it is rare for a college to close while it still has money with which to operate.

While working as president of the Appalachian College Association (ACA) for over 25 years, I saw many colleges struggling to avoid facing the reality of how close to being financially insolvent they were; two private colleges in the ACA region closed during my tenure and two others have closed since my retirement in 2008. In 2014, Virginia Intermont, an ACA college, closed after losing a battle the college had fought most of the 25 years I was leading the association. Several others came close to closing during my tenure, and they seem to remain close to closing even today—as reflected by continuing low enrollments and warnings from federal agencies.

When I left the ACA in 2008, I told the chair of my board of 37 colleges that I wanted to write a guide to how a college can close with grace. I have learned that conversations about closing are avoided even by colleges that are solidly financed and academically strong. Their fear is that if they talk about closing, it will appear they are encouraging colleges that might be their competitors to close. Colleges close to closing don’t talk about that fate for fear it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, if a college is facing financial disaster, not talking about it seems more likely to hasten its demise than to prevent it.

I spent much of the year after my retirement visiting and talking with people at colleges that had closed between 1997 and 2006: a small college in Kentucky; a liberal arts college in Massachusetts; a women’s college in North Carolina; an HBCU in Mississippi; a Catholic college in Illinois. All had histories of over l00 years, and all had experienced rises and falls in prosperity. While three closed when they anticipated a loss of accreditation, two ended after accreditation was lost—which meant the loss of federal funding and a chaotic closing. They had ignored calls from vendors and warnings from accreditors, believing prosperous times would return if they could just keep operating long enough. Later, I looked at a number of colleges that had merged or been sold to avoid closing: a small Catholic college and a large private university in Illinois; a small women’s college and a major public university in Ohio; a small college in New Mexico and a for-profit education company; and a small private college that became part of the university system in South Carolina. In some cases, the merger was highly successful; in others it was a disaster for the weaker institution.

Most of my data is qualitative, gathered primarily from information in the stories carried by the media and through interviews with people who have been involved in a closing or almost-closing of a college and are willing to talk about their experiences. Accurate quantitative data indicating that a college is about to close is almost impossible to obtain. Many small, struggling colleges do not maintain an office of institutional research, and data is gathered for national reports by whoever happens to have the time to do so—even if that person does not have the necessary expertise. As is evident from multiple stories in the press, even institutional research officers on the campuses of well-funded institutions sometimes “interpret” what data to report. At the ACA, even trying to find out a number as simple as what enrollments were for a particular semester was often answered with more questions: “Do you want all the students—including those online—or just those on campus? Do you want head count or full-time equivalency?” When we asked college leaders what they usually reported, they would answer, “Whatever makes us look the best.”

When I asked, “Are librarians counted as faculty or as support staff?” the answer was, “Librarians by definition are not counted as faculty for official reporting purposes (IPEDS, AAUP, etc.) and are not included in the calculation of the student-faculty ratio. They are classified as a part of the faculty on campus and counted in some cases for internal reporting purposes.”

What have I learned from all this thinking about struggling colleges?

The most important thing I have learned is that there may be two ways to close a college—with dignity or without—but there is no sure way to save one that is dying. Just as there are multiple contradictions in views about the decision to close Sweet Briar, there are similar disagreements about the future for small, private liberal arts colleges—especially those in rural areas. On the one hand, there is the group that says that private liberal arts colleges are becoming an anachronism, and those that still exist are becoming more and more like comprehensive universities by adding increasing numbers of vocational programs. On the other hand, some argue that “liberal arts colleges have always adapted to the demands of their time and continue to do so today.”[1] This position looks at the liberal arts college with a view that is broader than some, but it still reflects the idea that liberal arts colleges will continue—though in the future the focus of the liberal arts college may be unclear and reflect little that identified such colleges in the 20th-century.

Tom Angelo, from the University of North Carolina, has called “bottom-feeder institutions” a “cancer on American higher education,” saying that “in most markets bad players just go away; they are killed by more-efficient and less-expensive options.”[2] But Elon University of the l970s was described (by George Keller) as being “a small, unattractive, parochial bottom-feeder” struggling to fill its freshman class and pay its bills.” Today, Elon has roughly 5000 students and little financial aid. Not all small colleges in small towns are destined to die—but it does help if the small town where they are located is near a major city, surrounded by many large universities that accept small percentages of their applicants. In the case of Elon, Duke accepts 11 percent of applicants; University of North Carolina 30 percent; and Wake Forest 34 percent. Such figures suggest a lot of applicants interested in attending college in a particular geographic area may be left looking for a second- or third-choice college.

In 1979, the editor of Change magazine suggested that the country may have too many struggling colleges: “Is it in fact in the best ecological interests of higher education to have every marginal institution stay alive at any cost?”[3] But it is hard to argue that we have too many colleges when elite private colleges generally take less than 15 percent of their applicants; the large universities keep getting larger, the number of community colleges continues to increase and the total number of colleges and universities has grown over the past 50 years.[4] The issue here seems to be that century-old campuses are stuck in a time warp, and they need to change or get out of the way for the new ones becoming available.

This is the first of a two-part series by Alice Brown on the future of small, private, rural liberal arts colleges. In the second installment, she will share a few thoughts on how these institutions could adapt to changing market conditions to remain successful over the long term.

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[1] Spellman, B. “The resilient liberal arts college,” Inside Higher Ed, July 30, 2009, quoted in Vicki Baker, Roger G. Baldwin and Sumedha Makker, “Where are they now? Revisiting Breneman’s study of liberal arts colleges,” Liberal Education, Summer 2012, Vol. 98, No. 3,’s-study-of-liberal-arts-colleges.

[2] Jeffrey Selingo, “How many colleges and universities do we really need,” Washington Post, July 23, 2015,

[3] George W. Bonham, “Judicial overkill,” Change, editorial, September 1979.

[4] Jeffrey Selingo, “Colleges can still save themselves. Here’s how.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 2, 2013,

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