The Number of Small Colleges Is Declining Rapidly. Will They Soon Go Extinct?

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Is this the beginning of the end for small colleges? It's starting to look that way, according to a recent Bloomberg article. An average of 28 small, private colleges have closed their doors every year for the past five years — that's more than double the average for 2003-2008. So are we heading for a time when such colleges will be rare? It's hard to say, but it doesn't look like things will be getting easier for small schools any time soon.

Of course larger schools don't have an easy time of things, either, but smaller schools are less able to weather the turbulent times. Many are facing substantial financial troubles, but tuition has already been raised as high as it reasonably (or in some cases unreasonably) can. To save themselves, many have resorted to layoffs and even getting rid of certain departments. For some colleges, that means even English and history departments can wind up on the chopping block.

Maybe it's just me, but I tend to think that colleges without those departments are either not colleges, or are MIT. Except even MIT has a history department.

At the heart of the problem seems to be the simple fact that, as fewer and fewer students feel they can afford private education, the applicant pool for small, private colleges is drying up. And given that the employment stats for graduates of some of these schools often leave a lot to be desired, it's not like you can blame students for avoiding them.

At Slate, Jordan Weissmann argues that the decline of small colleges is really a good thing, given that high sticker price, low graduation rates, and less-than-ideal employment stats is a good sign that some of these institutions aren't serving their students well at all. "What we’re witnessing right now," he writes, "is a small brush fire, clearing out some of the unhealthier institutions in higher ed." And he makes some excellent points. So would it really be so bad to live in a world where small colleges were few and far between? Or even a world populated entirely by large universities, top-tier institutions, and online schools?

Well, it certainly would do a disservice to the students who want and value a small school experience. Small colleges do and should continue to have a place on the higher education landscape, but clearly if they are to stay alive and stay valuable, something does have to change. In a world where a college education is an expectation in the job market, rather than an advantage, the average small college either needs to become much more affordable, or be able to offer something unique beyond just a pleasant setting. Or, preferably, both.

And it can be done. The University of Southern New Hampshire successfully turned itself from a failing institution into a towering giant among small schools by embracing online courses. Fewer than 3,000 students attend at this traditional, picturesque campus, but over 25,000 are enrolled in the online courses the school offers. They've made themselves competitive by combining online and traditional students, and by keeping their tuition costs under control — a bachelor's degree costs $112,000 total for traditional students and $36,000 total for online students. Not cheap, but not as expensive as many other small schools now that average annual tuition at private schools has hit $40,000 per year. And as Southern New Hampshire's online presence expands both its reach and its name recognition, students won't be left feeling their degree doesn't mean anything.

Five years ago, the University of Southern New Hampshire was struggling to stay open. Today they are expanding. If other small, private schools want to find that kind of success, it's about time they got creative, either by following the online path or exploring their own, unique options. Because otherwise, they are doomed to fail.