It's a now-familiar event: administrators around the same table they've been meeting around regularly for months hashing out numbers, like a family struggling to see how to squeeze out one more month, one more year. At some point the group sits together facing the harshest realities: jobs must be cut, programs shut down, hiring frozen. Plans on hold.
The signs were all there, well before we admitted they were meaningful. Long before we began taking them seriously. In the earliest of these meetings, such indicators might be called opportunities by one dean, admissions might treat them as a temporary challenge, advancement was sure we could weather the storm. And these meetings ended with a kind of "we can beat this" retreat to separate corners of campus to rally isolated troops, to wage discrete battles. Only to re-table ourselves the next week and regale our administrative compatriots of new strategies, battles nearly won, ground taken or lost.
Like so many small schools engaged in such exercises, we rarely spoke the truth of lagging advancement, shrinking endowments, financial aid policy, deferred maintenance, the cost of attrition, problematic discount rates, intractable demographics.
Like so many others, we sought the wisdom of the gods. That is, we hired consultants.
Behind such strategies, deployed by so many across the country, reside the truths of declining numbers of students, an economy slouching toward recovery, returning students already carrying too much debt and unsure of their choice. Making things even worse we face shifting relationships between administration and faculty, growing industry skepticism around tenure, and a national conversation increasingly doubtful of the value of our mission.
And we find so many small liberal arts campuses to be places of anxiety, too much mistrust and not a little unease about the future.
While the devastating consequences of shifts in higher education policy have most recently and spectacularly been visited upon a very large school in Wisconsin, the small liberal arts colleges are at risk of closing their doors for good, ending one institution at a time, an important tradition in the history of higher education. The phrases "student-centered" or "a name not a number," grow directly out of a recognition that at the heart of a good education resides a relationship between teacher and student. Through these connections we can challenge, push boundaries, inspire students to take risks.
This is a tradition is worth saving. This is the value proposition of the small school.
But the numbers simply won't add up, no matter the meetings, the strategy, our good will and faith in our own schools. Some schools will survive by growing; others through deep cuts and restructuring. Too many simply won't make it. Not without a sea change in how state and federal support is distributed and determined.
Students are now making decisions to attend schools that will not survive, and this is the larger discussion worth having. As we do our best to serve students with fewer and fewer resources amid greater uncertainty, is that enough? Can we serve students who come to us because we are small, because we can offer student centeredness, can we serve them well under the current circumstances? National graduation rates for all but the elites suggest not. Total student debt tells the same story.
(Article changed on June 27, 2015 at 17:53)
(Article changed on June 27, 2015 at 17:57)