Phi Beta Cons

Lessons for Struggling Small Colleges

Sweet Briar doesn't have to be a "canary in the coal mine"

In March, when Sweet Briar College’s president announced that the small women’s liberal arts college will close this summer, some commentators overreacted. While its closure is shocking considering the abruptness of the announcement, Sweet Briar is not a “canary in the coal mine,” and its situation does not necessarily spell impending doom for other, similarly constituted colleges. In a given year there are, on average, a handful (or two) of closures of degree-granting institutions. In the depths of the Great Recession, closures roughly doubled, but now the closure rate is back to its historical average. Those facts should give pause to those who claim the college “bubble” is now “bursting.”

However, for colleges similar to Sweet Briar, the encouraging historical average should not result in complacency. Small, private liberal arts schools with modest endowments are most financially vulnerable, and they need to be proactive in terms of finding cost savings as well as opportunities for growth and innovation. John Ebersole, in this Forbes article, offers five tips for such colleges. He says that they need to find efficiencies by outsourcing and sharing services, do market research before launching new programs, consider altering their curricula and reaching out to new demographics, and explore alternative modes of education delivery (such as online courses).

“All of higher education is being asked to place greater emphasis on controlling expenses and slowing tuition increases. Recognizing that such action is not always within institutional control (i.e., regulatory compliance costs), viable financial models need to pay equal attention to both cost control and revenue generation. New programs, markets and delivery methods need to be considered, tested, and sought on a regular basis,” writes Ebersole. 

Jesse Saffron — Jesse Saffron is a writer and editor for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a North Carolina-based think tank dedicated to improving higher education in the Tar ...

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