The Disappearing of Small Public Colleges

I prefer "recipe for disaster" to "perfect storm," but it all boils down to the same thing. Take one very small public residential college, preferably with a microscopic endowment, and drop it in a rural location with high poverty and unemployment rates, rapidly declining demographics, and an aging population. Then flat-fund, at best, its state appropriation and freeze tuition, maybe even for several consecutive years. Stock the curriculum with excellent liberal arts degree programs, but charge the underpaid faculty with serving the workforce needs of the local, struggling, natural-resource-based economy. Now add a campus infrastructure with patched roofs, potholes, and several stately but elderly buildings barreling toward serious--though not yet dangerous--disrepair. Oh, and toss a million dollars of debt into the mix.

What have you got? A fairly typical small public college. In 2013. On the coast of Maine. Where I have enjoyed the privilege and challenge of being President for the past eight years.

All across this nation, small publics are getting squeezed out of the mix, disappearing between rapidly growing research universities, small private colleges with healthy endowments, and for-profit institutions offering online programs in every conceivable field. And folks, there just aren't many of us left, especially of the residential variety. Small public universities are being folded in as feeder branch campuses to their larger siblings, often surrendering their residence halls and baccalaureate degrees in the process, and trading them in for part-time commuter students and associate degrees--that is, if they manage to avoid shutting down completely.

That's really a shame, because the unique combination of very small size + low tuition + residential campus + liberal arts education = a college experience that is ideally suited for many students. With all due respect to our many excellent small private colleges and large research universities, this option has allowed generations of bright young high school graduates the opportunity to live in a highly supportive, residential college setting and earn an affordable bachelor's degree that prepares them not just for their first job, but for a meaningful, lifelong career. So although we're facing huge challenges that seem to grow more daunting every year, we're darn stubborn and definitely not ready to kick the bucket just yet.

What do we do about it? We grab hold of our own fate--our own future--and start turning this baby around. It's been said that effecting change in higher education is like trying to turn an ocean liner, but small public colleges have the advantage of being more the size of a lobster boat. We might not be formidable or glamorous, but we're nimble . . . and smart.

Turnaround: Step One.

Here in Machias, those of us who work "up to the college"--as a good Mainer would say--are figuring out that if you can't get rid of your problems, you need to turn them into opportunities. If you have a unique location, for example--and we most definitely do--you need to capitalize on it. Yeah, we're in a small town way up on the coast of Maine, just an hour shy of the Canadian border. Deep sigh . . . But wait, what are we apologizing for? Hey, we're in a small town on the coast of Maine, just an hour shy of the Canadian border!

As one of my colleagues puts it, "We're worth the drive." (Okay, it won't win any marketing awards, but you get the point.) This very small public college is literally perched right on the gorgeous coast of Maine, in one of the most beautiful, unspoiled places in this entire country--which is highly attractive to prospective college students and their parents, when marketed as the asset that it really and truly can be. And not to put too fine a point on it, but location is dirt cheap. It doesn't cost the college a cent.

Many struggling small public colleges and universities are in similar circumstances. Our roots are in missions--as the non-land-grant members of state university systems--to serve the rural, less heavily populated areas of states, often initially as teacher preparation colleges. It's critically important that, often as the first step in an academic turnaround, we gain the greatest possible return on this particular asset. Location, location, location. Location closely linked to degree programs can be a huge asset, and recognizing the value of location is a solid first step in revitalizing the curriculum and reversing a downward enrollment trend.

Is it working for this small college? Slowly. It's only a first step, and we're definitely racing against the clock. But yes, it's working.