Many small liberal arts colleges are on the brink of closing, making them a poor risk for people struggling to decide where to get their liberal arts degrees. Last year, one-third of colleges with enrollments below 3,000 students ran operating deficits, which is a very bad sign.
Even these schools’ chief financial officers, who have every incentive to paint a rosy picture, are worried. According to the Wall Street Journal, only about half the CFOs at private, nonprofit colleges rated their institutions as being financially stable.
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Small liberal arts schools are trying all sorts of strategies to survive. Some, like Holy Cross College in Indiana, have sold real estate to get cash infusions. Others, like Wheelock College in Boston and Shimer College in Chicago, have merged with larger institutions. And some, like Sweet Briar, are sending out distress calls to alumni, hoping cash infusions from wealthy patrons will keep them afloat awhile longer.
But the handwriting has been written on those ivy-covered walls; small liberal arts colleges have no long-term future. Some may limp along by selling real estate or drawing down their endowments, and some may continue to exist in an altered form by merging with stronger institutions. But the small, free-standing, liberal arts college is dead.
What are the implications of this shake up in the higher education industry? First, if you are shopping for a college, do not take out student loans to obtain a liberal arts degree from an obscure, private college that may be extinct before your student loans are repaid. How will you feel if you are still writing monthly student-loan payments ten years after your beloved alma mater closes its doors?
And college administrators and trustees should think about the ethical implications of continuing to recruit students when all the insiders know that their college is on its last legs. Is it morally right for a college with a string of annual budget shortfalls to hire an advertising firm to lure new students?
Of course, small colleges have the right to fight for survival and to try various strategies to meet their operating budgets. But the time must come when terminally ill institutions, like terminally ill hospital patients, must face reality.
A small college can keep itself alive from month to month with regular infusions of student-loan funds and Pell Grant money, just like a comatose patient can live from day to day by being fed intravenously.
But the day finally arrives when it is apparent that a dying institution is only postponing the inevitable by rolling out new schemes to raise cash or lure more students. And that day has come for dozens and dozens of small, private, liberal arts colleges.