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Colleges fight to preserve legacies

By Todd Feathers
New Hampshire Union Leader

June 24. 2018 10:08PM

When Sue Stuebner took over as president of Colby-Sawyer College in the summer of 2016, the only thing rich about the 178-year-old institution was its history.

A small liberal arts school with a modest endowment, Colby-Sawyer is heavily dependent on tuition. From a high of around 1,500 students a few years earlier, enrollment had dropped to 1,100 and the college was posting multi-million dollar operating losses.

In an attempt to boost its enrollment, Colby-Sawyer followed a prevalent national model: raise tuition, but offer generous discounts. By 2016, the college was discounting 72 percent of its students’ tuition, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

It was an untenable situation and a story that’s playing out at small, nonprofit universities throughout the country, prompting fears about the future of liberal arts educations.

“We’ve definitely turned the corner,” Stuebner said, but it required hard choices.

Colby-Sawyer eliminated 20 administrative positions and consolidated an additional 25; it cut five degree programs, including liberal arts mainstays like English and philosophy; and it is gradually reducing the amount of financial aid it gives students.

“Some folks are worried that we’re going to become an entirely different institution, but we’re not,” Stuebner added. “This institution has had a history of being nimble and making very hard decisions.”

University administrators have long foreseen enrollment declines as a result of demographic changes. The number of public high school graduates in New Hampshire declined 11 percent over the past decade, from 15,120 in 2008 to 13,511 in 2017. The decline in high school graduates attending college is even steeper, and New Hampshire ranks first in the nation with 60 percent of its college-bound graduates leaving the state to attend school, according to the U.S. DOE.

The impact of those changes has been on full display in the region. Since April, Mount Ida College in Massachusetts announced it would shut down; St. Anselm College, in Goffstown, laid off 13 employees; and the financially struggling New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester unveiled plans to merge with New England College in Henniker.

“Whatever affects higher education as a field impacts smaller, liberal arts colleges even more,” said Richard Reddick, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin. “If you have a really bad enrollment and low endowment, a bad year can really just knock you out of the niche.”

Other ways

The forecast is not all doom and gloom.

St. Bonaventure University in western New York saw its smallest-ever incoming class in 2015, with 390 freshman. The Franciscan school has boosted enrollment to 563 for the upcoming year, due in large part to the creation of a Division 1 men’s lacrosse team, a new health sciences undergraduate program, and increased advertising in local population centers.

The university made a calculated risk to fund those investments by borrowing and launching a capital campaign, President Dennis DePerro said.

While it appears to be working for St. Bonaventure, DePerro said the school benefited from a pre-existing athletic reputation and its location in a rural area with few other competitors in the health care education field.

“I’ve seen some institutions that have tried to create new programs and have had difficulty because the market that they’re in is flooded with these programs, particularly in major population centers,” he said.

That was the case for Colby-Sawyer, which recently turned down the offer of a major donation to create a degree program in a high-tech field because the administration didn’t believe it could compete with similar programs at nearby schools, Stuebner said.

Husson University in Maine has also invested in expanding its degree offerings and is presenting itself as a direct pipeline to very specific jobs. It’s seen a nearly 70 percent increase in enrollment, from 2,200 in 2006 to 3,700 in 2017, even as the number of Mainers graduating high school dropped by 16 percent, according to John Champoli, vice president for enrollment management.

Before liberal arts schools adopt that approach, though, Reddick said they need to consider their mission and whether they’re underselling the education they provide by assuming that a history major can only become a historian, or an English major can only become a teacher. “We’re making one-to-one comparisons — if you cannot draw a direct line from a major to a job, that program is irrelevant — and that could not be further from the truth,” he said.

Efforts at home

To survive in the Granite State, colleges are looking across borders.

In April, the New Hampshire Council of Universities and Colleges announced a partnership with the state’s Division of Tourism to begin a concerted recruitment drive in New York for all its member schools.

New England College is also working individually to bring in students from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and several metro areas in Texas. The hope is that those students will bolster enrollment in the short-term but also grow the college’s reputation in their home states, thus prompting more high school graduates to come to New Hampshire, New England College President Michele Perkins said.

Developing online learning programs has helped New England College and Southern New Hampshire University expand the markets from which they draw students,

In 2012, SNHU was the 50th-largest nonprofit provider of college degrees in the country; now it’s number one with 104,000 students enrolled in degree programs, most of them online.

“The problem you talk about with those small colleges, you just don’t get that economy of scale,” SNHU President Paul LeBlanc said. SNHU is more dependent on tuition revenue than any other private college in the state and its operating margin in recent years has been second only to Ivy League Dartmouth College, which has a nearly $5 billion endowment.

Even though only a small fraction of SNHU’s students — about 4,000 — physically attend classes at the Manchester campus, its profitability has allowed it to invest tens of millions into new dormitory buildings, an athletic complex, and women’s sports teams.

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