The long tradition of students attending small, residential liberal arts colleges around the country was already shaky before the pandemic. Students are choosing less expensive options and more practical degrees. Experts warn that 10 percent of American colleges — about 200 or more institutions — are on the verge of going under. The pandemic is accelerating that trend.
Wells College President Jonathan Gibralter had a tough decision to make this summer. Should he bring students back to campus in the fall, or close his college?
Wells College, a liberal arts school of just 471 students in New York’s Finger Lakes region, could not get by on remote learning.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has severely complicated every aspect of our planning and now poses a threat to the College’s future path forward,” Gibralter wrote in a letter to the college community in May.
Wells faces the same dilemma as other residential schools: Room and board fees are a substantial source of a college’s revenue, so the college can’t survive on online classes. But welcoming students back to campus comes with risks, and costs.
Unlike elite schools with national reputations, such as Amherst, Swarthmore, and Williams, many of the small colleges sprinkled across the country don't have big endowments they can dip into. Some have survived for more than a century — through the Great Depression and world wars — but their business model was already not working well in the 21st century. Scores of small American colleges that were already struggling financially may be forced out of business by the Coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession.
Two early casualties are MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and Holy Family College, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
"In the final analysis, the Covid-19 ramifications sealed the concerns about the college's long-term future,” wrote Sister Natalie Binversie in an open letter to the Holy Family College community in May.
Covid-19 is accelerating trends that have been growing for years: More competition for fewer students means small, underfunded schools are at risk.
People who study higher education finance have been warning for years that a shakeout is coming for small colleges and universities. Colleges are fundamentally in a fight for a dwindling number of students. There are a lot more people going to college than there were when places like Wells were founded — but they're not going to schools like Wells.
“At the moment, the river [of students] is flowing toward big rich institutions, and away from small, under-resourced institutions,” said Robert Zemsky, co-author of The College Stress Test.
Zemsky and his colleagues estimate that 10 percent of American colleges — about 200 or more institutions — are on the verge of going under. Another 30 percent they label as “struggling.” Among the contributing factors: a kind of financial aid arms race known as “tuition discounting.” Colleges offer merit scholarships to students to make them feel wanted. Zemsky said it has been going on for about 15 years.
“So every institution thinks, ‘If we give away a little bit of money, more students will come to us,’” he said.
The scholarships were a marketing ploy, but as more colleges joined in, the discounts grew deeper. Now, at a typical small college, the average student only pays 40 to 45 percent of the sticker price.
Some colleges are left with little margin to combat a pandemic.
Gibralter estimated that to open safely this fall the college will need 50,000 test kits, 75,000 masks, and 60,000 pairs of gloves. It purchased a large-scale disinfecting machine to clean hard surfaces in a classroom quickly. The school will need contact tracing, a place to isolate faculty and students who become infected, and a plan in case they suddenly have to reclose the campus.
Student Feleesha Jones will be a sophomore this year. She said the tiny size of the college might be an advantage in battling Covid-19.
“The good thing about having small class sizes is you're in a room with six people or 10 people, you can be six feet apart no matter what,” she said.
Jones said the uncertainty over the college’s future had prompted a few of her friends to start looking at other colleges, but she hoped to ride it out at Wells.
In early July, the Board of Trustees at Wells College voted to remain open and to welcome students back to campus this fall.
In a statement on its website, the college said it is not out of the woods yet, but better-than-anticipated enrollment, generous donations and a bridge loan gave it confidence to move forward in the new school year.