The announcement in March that Sweet Briar College (VA) will close this year is unfortunate. But it does not signal the demise of small private colleges. Doomsday predictions by some journalists and commentators in the wake of Sweet Briar’s decision do a disservice to the hundreds of smaller colleges that are doing well.
For those small colleges that do experience challenges in enrollment or finances, a closer look reveals that no one factor—such as small size, small endowment, single-sex education, or rural location—is predictive. An imaginative leader can usually adopt strategies that allow the college to thrive while another superficially similar college without good leadership might sink.
Most small private colleges excel in educational performance and in addressing high-priority national needs. The more personalized academic environment of these colleges leads to higher overall four-year degree completion rates: According to the 2014 Digest of Education Statistics, 53 percent of first-time, full-time students earned their bachelor’s degrees within four years at private nonprofit colleges versus 34 percent at public universities, and only 23 percent at for-profit institutions. Low-income, minority, and first-generation students are also far more likely to graduate from a smaller private college—and to do so on time—than their peers at larger public research universities. For example, 64 percent of low-income private college graduates earn a degree in four years versus 50 percent of low-income students at public research universities; for first-generation students, the graduation rates are 77 percent versus 50 percent, respectively.
In certain fields, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the productivity of small colleges in the graduation of aspiring STEM professionals is especially noteworthy. An overwhelming proportion (80 percent) of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM fields at small private colleges earned their degrees in four years or less, compared with 34 percent at public four-year nondoctoral institutions and 52 percent at public four-year doctoral institutions.
In short, if we are serious about the American promise of expanding participation in higher education at the same time that we strive to incorporate more intellectual rigor and raise the bar for learning outcomes, we should acknowledge that the nonelite small colleges lead other sectors in performance.
Small scale does, however, mean higher costs. Consequently, on most private college campuses, fundraising for scholarships is a top priority—a corollary of their deep commitment to need-based aid and a diverse student body. As a result, these colleges enroll a larger proportion of low-income students than any other four-year sector of higher education. And, contrary to reports that graduates are mired in debt, the reality is that one-quarter of graduates of private colleges have no debt at all, and the average debt among graduates is $20,000—a worthwhile investment in their superior lifetime earnings capacity.
Sweet Briar College’s abrupt announcement raised questions about the future of women’s colleges in general. It is true that the number of young women who prefer women’s colleges has decreased. The responses by many women’s colleges have been imaginative and successful. Some have enrolled men, while others have launched revenue-generating programs that augment, not displace, the undergraduate women’s programs. Mary Baldwin College’s (VA) health sciences college is off to an excellent start. Agnes Scott College (GA) has doubled down on its international emphasis. Others, such as Mills College (CA), have repositioned themselves as urban access institutions. Chatham University (PA) has grown robust graduate programs. Notre Dame of Maryland University launched a pharmacy school in parallel with its undergraduate women’s college. Wilson College (PA) has a program to relieve the loans of students who choose low-paying careers, and is enjoying record-level enrollment.
The point is that even allegedly inexorable trends can be reversed. In the post-1960s era, college students often favored the environment of small rural colleges. More recently, metropolitan settings have gained appeal. Such cycles are normal.
At a time when increasing college completion is a national priority, it is sad to see any college close its doors. The blogosphere often overgeneralizes, and Sweet Briar’s closure plans have given journalists and futurists plenty of grist for the mill. Leaders of all small colleges will, I hope, review their distinctive strengths and vulnerabilities and find a way forward that is tailored to their particular institutions. Together, trustees and college and university presidents who remain clear-eyed about the challenges they face can ensure that most of the nation’s liberal arts institutions will continue to thrive.
Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges.