“…A quick look at recent announcements shows that many colleges closing or cutting back are Roman Catholic, and many are located in the middle of the country -- the Midwest and Appalachia.
“Those aren’t necessarily independent variables, though. There is a large number of small Roman Catholic colleges in the country, and many are located in regions where demographics are shifting with declines in populations that have traditionally attended Catholic institutions. The Roman Catholic institutions are likely caught up in trends affecting higher education more broadly -- trends like enrollment challenges, tuition discounting and a lack of financial resources at small institutions.
“‘A lot of our national data really indicate that some of these small Catholic colleges, as well as small private colleges throughout the country, are really struggling because of their finances,’ said Heather Gossart, director of executive mentoring and coaching and a senior consultant with the National Catholic Educational Association.
“Families are increasingly worried about tuition rates at colleges and universities, Gossart said. Some seek alternatives, such as public colleges that they think will be less expensive than Roman Catholic institutions. Others may not even consider small colleges because they don’t think a college small in size can offer as much financial aid as a larger university -- regardless of whether that perception is true.
“Many Roman Catholic colleges are doing very well, even if some are struggling, Gossart said. Yet she acknowledged a potentially grim future. ‘I think unless every one of our Catholic institutions begins thinking outside the box and looking at new and creative ways to recruit student populations and to create affordable tuitions, I think we are going to see the demise of some of our smaller Catholic colleges,’ she said.
“‘And it’s tragic, because each one brings a charism from its founding congregation. It brings a measurable value to the community that it exists in. But the reality is that it comes to a point where some of these smaller institutions are no longer viable.’
“There’s another possible explanation for what seems like a large number of Catholic colleges closing or making major changes. Their shared religious identity -- the connections between board members and specific perspectives fostered by their common faith -- might make them more likely to be early movers when it comes time to respond to pressures. If that’s the case, it could be an indication that other institutions are likely moving toward the brink but have yet to act…
“No matter their religious affiliation, colleges under the most pressure tend to be saddled with a mix of problems like financial issues, academic programs that don’t stand out, declining enrollment and difficulty fund-raising, said James M. Hunter, who is the chief academic officer and senior vice president for business development at Emerge Education, a consulting group. Many are also located in rural areas…
“Signs point to the Midwest being under significantly more enrollment pressure than other parts of the country. Many Midwestern admissions officers, even at elite institutions, also reported struggling this year.
“A Moody’s tuition survey released last week found that enrollment growth is projected at less than 1 percent across public and private universities nationwide in 2017. But 61 percent of institutions in the Midwest reported enrollment decreasing this fall. The portion projecting decreases in other parts of the country proved to be much lower, in the 40 percent range…
“CIC earlier this year released a report showing colleges and universities have recovered significantly since the Great Recession. It also showed colleges with fewer than 1,000 students have performed worse financially than larger institutions. Several colleges and universities have been closing every year for decades, Ekman said. Still, he acknowledged that there seems to be a slight uptick so far this year. ‘I don’t know that it’s the beginning of a trend, but I certainly hope not,’ he said.
“The current spate of closings doesn’t necessarily mean more will follow faster, said Peter Stokes, managing director at Huron Consulting Group. But it should serve as a wake-up call telling colleges and universities they need to be smarter about facing mounting challenges.
“There are likely ways for many to navigate those challenges. New types of student can be welcomed to classes, whether they be minority students who have traditionally been recruited in smaller numbers, adults or others who have historically been underserved. New donors can sometimes be found. Debt can often be managed better. Programs can be better tailored and colleges can carve out more unique identities instead of blending into the crowd.
“A key question remains whether it’s too late for some colleges to successfully follow new strategies. Another is whether their leaders will tell themselves that their colleges have a unique story that couldn’t possibly end in closure -- until the many pressures build into a crisis and it’s too late...”
For the entire article, Days of Reckoning by David Seltzer, click here.