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Small US Colleges Fight to Stay Open

Students sit outside at Sweet Briar College, which came very close to closing in 2015.
Students sit outside at Sweet Briar College, which came very close to closing in 2015.
Small US Colleges Fight to Stay Open
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Many Americans have probably never heard of McIntosh College in the northeastern state of New Hampshire. The same might be said for St. Catharine College in Kentucky or Bethany University in California.

But these three schools all had two things in common. They were all small, private colleges and each one closed in the past 10 years.

The United States currently has over 4,700 colleges and universities. Almost every year some older schools close, while other schools open.

And now some experts are warning of a possible jump in the number of small, private colleges closing down. They believe the number of yearly closings may triple by 2017. This represents a 200 percent increase compared to that of two years ago.

Moody’s Investor Service is a credit rating business. It researches the value and success of companies and other organizations. Last year, Moody’s released a report about U.S. college closures. The report was based on information gathered by the Department of Education. It found that in the past an average of five colleges or universities closed every year.

The report then suggested the yearly number of closures may reach as high as 15 by next year. It also said that small colleges are the most at risk.

The report defines small colleges as any private school with operating revenue below $100 million. Public colleges were defined as those with revenue below $200 million.

Dennis Gephardt is a leader of the higher education team at Moody’s. He notes the predicted number of closures is still less than only one percent of all non-profit colleges and universities in the country. He thinks it is often difficult for small, private colleges to compete with bigger schools.

First of all, Gephardt says, the bigger schools can accept more students. This means they get more money from tuition payments. Bigger schools often have other money and investments under their control, he adds.

An endowment is the amount of money a college or university receives from donations and earnings on investments. Schools often use their endowments to help pay for their day-to-day operations. Endowments can also help pay for operating costs if there is ever a decrease in tuition dollars.

Larger schools often have larger endowments.

Bigger schools are also more widely known, Gephardt adds. Such schools are able to offer more programs and have more money to advertise to a larger group of people. He says in some cases bigger schools offer more variety of experiences for the same cost as smaller schools.

The economic recession a few years ago made many new college students think more about value, he adds. At that point more students started considering bigger, public colleges that could offer more financial aid. He says this forced smaller colleges to compete more with each other over which one could offer more for less.

"They compete and compete ferociously on price. And so those colleges with a weaker perceived market value had a hard time."

One example of a school that faced hard times is Sweet Briar College in the eastern state of Virginia.

Sweet Briar, a private women’s college, opened in 1901. In 2015, its governing board began to worry that the school’s finances appeared weak. In March of that year, the board’s members announced they would close Sweet Briar forever. They did not discuss their concerns or plans with the students, teachers or other workers before making the announcement.

Students had to find new schools and the employees had to find new jobs.

But then something happened.

News of the closure began to spread. Sweet Briar College alumni learned that the school they loved so much would no longer exist. And together with current students and others, they began to fight to back.

Faculty members took legal action against the board for violating their teaching contracts. Parents of students also took legal action. They argued that their children did not receive the full education the school promised them.

By July of that year, courts ordered the removal of the board’s members and stopped the school from closing. The alumni were then able to choose a new president for the school. They chose Philip Stone.

Stone had many years of experience as a college president and governing member of educational organizations. But when he arrived at Sweet Briar, he knew it would take a lot of work to save the school. About 60 percent of the faculty and staff had already taken new jobs.

Also, Stone only had six weeks to prepare before the classes opened in the fall.

But Stone acted quickly. Right away he brought back 200 of the former faculty and staff members. He rescheduled all the athletic events that were canceled when the school announced its closure. He also was able to regain Sweet Briar’s accreditation.

However, Stone did not fix all of the school’s problems alone. The alumni also came together to raise more than $20 million over the following 12 months to help pay legal and operating costs.

When the college started the 2015 fall term, it had only 240 students. But Stone notes Sweet Briar’s financial performance for the 2015 to 2016 school year was the strongest in its history.

Stone plans to finish his career next year. Yet he believes Sweet Briar will keep growing and return to its former standing someday soon. He believes this because of the strong connection students at a small college make with each other and with their school.

"A graduate three years out of school might call someone she had never met across the country somewhere, maybe out of school 50 years earlier, and they immediately bond by their feeling of being sisters from this special environment of a women’s college."

David Warren agrees that the future is not as dark for small, private colleges as the Moody’s report suggests. Warren is the head of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. His organization represents over 1,000 private colleges, including Sweet Briar.

Warren says Moody’s does a bad job of noting the difference between colleges and universities that close completely and those that join with other schools. When two schools join together it is called a merger. Warren says the actual current average of schoolclosures is two per year.

Warren admits both mergers and closures can be difficult experiences for students, faculty and staff. But both are rare, especially at small colleges with a history of loyalty from all involved.

"These little colleges have been around, some for 150 or 200 years. They have an extraordinary dedication by alumni and friends and the local community in which they are located. And there’s a saying around a long time, which is ‘One of the hardest thing to kill is a small private college."

Warren says the best chance small, private colleges have for success is through understanding their own value. Small colleges can offer more personal experiences with smaller class sizes. And often times there is a subject that small colleges can specialize in, like nursing or religious studies.

But most importantly, Warren says, small colleges must learn to cut costs. They will be able to compete with larger schools if they can find ways to reduce tuition prices and manage their own money better.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Which are more common in your country: small private colleges or big public universities? Do people value both equally? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

triplev. to cause something to become three times as great or as many

closure(s) – n. a situation or occurrence in which something, such as a business or factory), closes forever

revenuen. money that is made by or paid to a business or an organization

tuitionn. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

varietyn. the quality or state of having or including many different things

ferociouslyadv. done in a way that is very great or extreme

perceivedadj. something that is believed

boardn. a group of people who manage or direct a company or organization

alumnin. people who were students at a particular school, college, or university

contract(s) – n. a legal agreement between people or companies

reschedule(d) – v. to schedule something for a different time or date

accreditationn. official permission to operate

graduaten. a person who has earned a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

dedicationn. a feeling of very strong support for or loyalty to someone or something