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Small Colleges Are Like Condemned Death Row Prisoners

Cabrini University, a small Catholic school near Philadelphia, is eliminating its Provost position as part of a plan to cut costs and balance its budget. It will also eliminate two associate provost positions and shrink the number of department chairs from 18 to eight.

“We continue to lose money every year,” Helen Drinan, Cabrini’s interim president, explained. “That is no longer tenable.”

According to an Inside Higher Ed article, student enrollment at Cabrini has dropped by 36 percent over the past five years.  It currently faces a $5 million shortfall in its $45 million budget.

This is Cabrini’s second major shakeup in less than two years. In 2021, the university reduced its workforce by 13 percent and eliminated majors in Black studies, religious studies, gender and body studies, philosophy, and nutrition.

Cabrini is among dozens of small, private liberal arts colleges that are losing enrollment and in danger of closing. Nationwide, undergraduate enrollment has dropped by almost ten percent since the COVID pandemic began.

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Flagship universities have not suffered much. In fact, enrollment at large public schools has remained steady. Small, private colleges, however, are struggling to survive.  Students are no longer willing to take out student loans to attend an obscure institution, especially one cutting its programs.

Moreover, liberal arts programs, which are the small schools’ specialty, have fallen out of fashion. What kind of a job can a Cabrini graduate expect to get with a degree in philosophy or religious studies?

In some ways, small colleges are like condemned prisoners who file appeal after appeal to postpone their execution date.

Liberal arts schools have eliminated academic programs, started new programs, slashed tuition, and hired public relations firms in the hope that they can entice more students to enroll. In the end, however, many small private colleges will close or merge with other institutions.

Many small liberal arts schools would have closed already were it not for the infusion of federal student-loan money and COVID relief funds. Federal money has kept many small colleges on life support, but it hasn’t made them financially viable.

As I have said before, I feel sorry for the small liberal arts schools, which performed a noble service during the last century by expanding opportunities for young people to get a college education.

But the era of the small private college is over. Students are no longer willing to pay more than $30,000 a year in tuition and fees to attend an obscure and often under-resourced private school.

To put it bluntly, a young person would be nuts to take out student loans to get a liberal arts degree from a struggling private college.  And their parents would be nuts to take out Parent PLUS loans to help finance their child’s education from a school that might close before they paid off their loans.

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.