What’s the point of higher education? When college leaders are asked that, they have a set of familiar answers: Students learn skills that employers want; community colleges provide a pathway to the middle class; giant public universities produce research in the public interest. They might even add that at places such as Harvard and Yale and Stanford, the reasons for attending are quite clear—connections, prestige, and support for low-income students, among them. Absent from this case for higher education, however, are America’s small private institutions—places such as Nichols College or the recently closed Newbury College, where the cost of attending is enormously high, and where officials have struggled to fill seats.
Of course, these sorts of small private colleges have benefits: They tend to have lower student-to-teacher ratios. They also tend to have the kind of physical environment—the picturesque liberal-arts campus—that many students romanticize. But many of these colleges are struggling. Finding students who are able to pay the full cost of attendance is difficult, so the schools discount their tuition, even as they have become more tuition-dependent. That has led several experts to predict that a lot of these colleges will face serious financial challenges in the years ahead, and that many will even close.
Even compliments of the sector finish with the caveat of declining viability. “The higher-ed ecosystem is comprised of many different kinds of institutions,” Janet Napolitano, the chancellor of the University of California system said onstage at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. An audience member had asked about the praise for the success stories provided by the public colleges represented onstage, and whether any of those onstage could make the case for small private colleges. One panelist jokingly passed on the question. Napolitano fielded it. The ecosystem includes “lots of very high-quality private institutions,” she said. But she acknowledged that their tuitions are higher—sometimes much higher—and that “they are going to have to use a variety of techniques to try to survive.”
These days, seemingly everyone wants to fix higher education—particularly the Democratic candidates vying for the 2020 nomination. They have offered a slate of proposals, from debt cancellation to tuition- or debt-free college, that could fundamentally change the landscape of student debt. But typically left out of these free-college proposals are private colleges—the small schools with low enrollments, high tuition, and little endowments to fall back on.
Both Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have built support for private historically black colleges and other minority-serving institutions into their free-college plans because of the missions these institutions have carried out. But other institutions will likely struggle to compensate if such a free-college model becomes law. As my colleague Alia Wong wrote of Newbury College, which wobbled, trying to find steady footing, before closing, “Institutions like Newbury simply struggled, then failed, to adjust—or just didn’t want to adjust in the first place.”
The question posed from the audience was elucidating: People are doubtful whether the full-freight cost of private college can be justified. Costing tens of thousands of dollars a year, the schools have a tough sell to make, especially when public universities and community colleges can offer so much—for so much less.