March 5 2015

In the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, “With Survival at Stake, Small Colleges Reach for Lifelines,” Lawrence Biemilller describes the initiatives and strategies of six small, private colleges that are looking beyond the traditional liberal arts curriculum and establishing a foothold in an increasingly competitive and challenging environment.

It is ironic that the day after this article appeared in the Chronicle, Sweet Briar College in Virginia announced that it was closing its doors due to “insurmountable financial challenges.” The challenge of survival for the small, private college or university is well known, shrinking resources, ballooning discount rates, heightened competition for students, and increased scrutiny from government, parents, and society about outcomes and whether the educational experience is worth the price. Yet, leaders of small private colleges know the importance of the small classroom size; they see the value in having an intimate setting where students who would be lost in larger institutions can successfully learn and even thrive. Speak to a faculty member or administrator at a small private college and they can tell you hours of stories about the students they have come to know and how those students were transformed by the experience they had at that institution. 

That said, boards of trustees, faculty, and administration of small, private institutions all know that the world as they have known and loved is coming to an end. The six colleges in Mr. Biemiller’s article all took a leap of faith, made strategic investments, and looked deeply into themselves to identify ways that they could differentiate their institution from the myriad other small private colleges in their region and the nation.

Leaps of faith are required: diversification of revenue streams, identification of targeted pipelines of students (and not just athletes), developing academic and co-educational programs of distinction, and brand recognition/reputation are all areas where small private colleges can begin to both differentiate themselves as well as provide greater economic security.  A leap of faith may be challenging and frightening, but for many institutions, a leap will be needed to avoid the same unfortunate fate as Sweet Briar. 

Read the full article referenced in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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