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Small, Private Colleges are Sliding Toward Oblivion

Written by Richard Fossey

As reported in Inside Higher Ed, Becker College is on the brink of closure. Located in Worchester, Massachusetts (no garden spot), Becker’s enrollments have drifted downward in recent years, and it now enrolls only about 1,500 students.

The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education says the school’s financial situation is uncertain, and Becker and the Department are working on a “contingency closure” plan. A local newspaper says Becker “is unlikely to survive another academic year.”

Becker is an expensive place to study. Tuition and fees total approximately $40,000 a year. When living expenses are included, attending Becker will cost at least $50,000.

Thus, for students who invest four years of their lives studying at Becker College, a bachelor’s degree could cost $200,000.

Unfortunately, it takes longer than four years for most Becker students to get their bachelor’s degree. CollegeSimply reports that only 14 percent of Becker students earn their bachelor’s degree within four years, and only 27 percent graduate within six years. (Other sources cite a higher graduation rate, and Becker’s website says its graduation rate is above the national average.)

Of course, most Becker students get some financial assistance that can cut costs considerably. But few people will graduate from Becker College without taking out student loans. According to CollegeSimply, 83 percent of Becker students have federal student loan debt when they graduate.

And what kind of job awaits a Becker College graduate?

Today, small private colleges are sliding down a path toward oblivion. Hundreds of these schools dot the American landscape, especially in New England and the mid-Atlantic states.

Many are losing students, and some are closing. Atlantic Union College, located only a few miles from Becker College, shut down in 2018. Incredibly, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education maintains a list of more than sixty closed colleges and schools in the Bay State.

The COVID pandemic hit these colleges especially hard—accelerating enrollment declines. Federal money has propped some of them up—at least temporarily. Becker College received nearly $5 million in coronavirus aid.

To an unsophisticated young person, a small private college like Becker may look attractive. In contrast to the public mega-universities, which may enroll 50,000 students or more, the small private schools feel friendlier. Their ancient buildings–Romanesque, Greek revival, or Victorian architecture–their leafy lawns and small, intimate classroom setting are appealing to young people searching for wisdom and guidance that will help them plan their lives.

But these colleges can be dangerous places to study. First of all, they are quite expensive. Tuition prices vary from school to school, but they typically charge about $50,000 per year in tuition, fees, room, and board. Most students from low-income or middle-class families will be forced to take out student loans to cover those costs.

Second, a degree from a small, private college may not lead to a good job. CollegeSimply reports that a Becker College graduate’s average salary after ten years is only $46,600. That is not a very attractive salary for a person burdened by oppressive student loan debt.

I sympathize with these small, struggling private colleges. Some have noble histories dating back to the early nineteenth century or even earlier. Becker College, for example, traces its roots to 1784.

And many of these schools have made commendable efforts to remain relevant. Becker Colege offers various job-oriented degree programs: nursing, criminal justice, veterinary technology, and forensic science. Becker’s game design program is nationally recognized. According to the Princeton Review, the program ranks number 2 in the world.

But the future of the small, private college is bleak. Young people should carefully consider the costs and benefits of attending an expensive private school compared to a public university.

They should also weigh the possibility that the private college of their choice may shut its doors in the not-to-distance future–perhaps before they pay off their student loans.




About the author

Richard Fossey

Richard Fossey is a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received his law degree from the University of Texas and his doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is editor of Catholic Southwest, A Journal of History and Culture.

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