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.