Many Small Private Colleges Are Doomed
Inside Higher Ed reports that yet another small private college is closing:
Two weeks ago, Memphis College of Art said it would close. Also last month, Grace University, in Nebraska, announced plans to shut down, and Wheelock College announced plans to merge into Boston University.
In another sign of the challenges facing small private colleges without substantial financial resources, St. Gregory's University, in Oklahoma, said Wednesday that it would end operations at the end of the fall semester. The university is a private liberal arts institution about 40 miles from Oklahoma City.
Last summer, Marketwire covered the topic with its article "Why so many small private colleges are in danger of closing" which analyzed how small colleges are having to offer discounts on tuition to get people in the door. Larger institutions, both public and private, aren't have this problem.
The miniscule size of some of these colleges is astounding. The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports:
Of the 1,600 private nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States, almost 30 percent have enrollments of under 1,000 students. And though closings have amounted to less than one percent of private colleges, according to David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent College and Universities, a Moody’s Investors Services report last fall indicated that the pace appears to be increasing. As we know, when one of the more recognizable small institutions is threatened with closure — Sweet Briar, Mills, Antioch — and brought back from the brink, at least temporarily, there follows a flurry of new stories about small colleges and the economic peril they face.
Needless to say, its hard to take advantage of economies of scale with an institution that has only a few hundred students. The overheard costs of old buildings alone must be enormous.
And from a student's point of view, it's hard to see why many of them would want to drop everything for 4 years and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere to attend a tiny college with few resources, and which few people have even heard of outside the surrounding region.
Even worse is the fact that these small private colleges tend to be incredibly expensive. Nowadays, few people have the resources and leisure time to pay $80,000 for an education at a small college in a small town where there are few opportunities for earning income to supplement one's living expenses.
Indeed, many of these colleges have more the feel of a resort rather than a serious educational institution. Many of them are in bucolic settings with old-timey buildings that help one re-enact "the college experience" one sees in television shows and movies. And in the end, for those who earn degrees of little value, such as a women's studies degree, this is essentially what an "education" at these institutions amounts to: a very costly four-year vacation from the realities of the world.
For more savvy consumers of education, of course, a large university in the heart of a metropolitan area makes much more sense. These universities have laboratory resources. They have better faculty. They have access to better internships with businesses and hospitals and for part time jobs that can help pay the bills. And, of course, if one goes to a public urban university (such as IUPUI in Indianapolis) one is likely to leave school with actual job opportunities after paying a mere fraction of the price necessary to attend No-Name U in Tinytown, Illinois.
Moreover, if people stopped blowing tens of thousands of dollars on these schools, we'd hear less about the immense amounts of debt that many students take on and then claim they had to borrow in order to get an "education." A lot of the time, these huge debt levels were taken on to finance four years of not working in a charming small-town atmosphere, all the while claiming such expenses were absolutely necessary.
For all of these reasons, over time, we'll see more and more of these small colleges go away. Once interest rates in student loans start to go up — which is a certainty in the medium- and long-term — these Vacation Colleges are going to look even less attractive than they do now, and they'll become a niche market for the wealthy and/or clueless.