As New England Liberal Arts Colleges Struggle Financially, One Pins Hopes on Health Care Majors
New England is known for fall foliage, devotion to its controversial football team and its concentration of small colleges. But financial challenges are endangering this institutional species, forcing campuses in the region to adapt or die.
Since 2015, 14 institutions in New England have closed and nine have merged, says Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. More mergers are planned. Last week, the University of Maine system voted to integrate its multiple-campus system and pursue combined accreditation, and there are plans in Connecticut to merge a dozen community colleges into a single institution.
At Colby-Sawyer College, in New Hampshire, the search for a sustainable future led leaders to think about how their liberal arts institution could stand out from its peers. Discovering lots of local unfilled health care jobs, college leaders decided to build on the success of the school’s nursing program and create five new health science majors intended to direct students toward those employment opportunities.
“As a small, regional liberal arts college, we’ve been having lots of conversations about our future and how we ensure our future will be as strong as our 182-year history,” says president Sue Stuebner. “This is an opportunity to build on what some of our strengths are, as well as attend to what seems to be a pretty dire need in our region.”
Trouble in New England
By 2030, the number of high school graduates in New England is projected to decline 25 percent from its peak in 2007, according to a report from EY Parthenon, which could disproportionately affect small campuses that draw from local communities. Colleges in the region are also reporting difficulty helping international students secure visas to attend, Brittingham says.
Colleges facing financial trouble may be able to merge, an option some public institutions have taken recently. One of the region’s early mergers came in the 1970s, when St. Francis College, a religious liberal arts college, merged with the New England College of Osteopathic Medicine to form the University of New England, which later combined with Westbrook College.
“Mergers work when it's done before the point of crisis,” Brittingham says. “If an institution ends up with too much debt, physical has deteriorated, at some point the institution doesn't become an attractive asset for a merger partner.”
Meanwhile, New England’s failing private schools have typically opted simply to close. These shutterings affect not only faculty, students and alumni, but also entire towns.
“Colleges in a small community are a big anchor to the community. They offer employment, cultural advantages, athletic facilities—they're a hub of activity for communities,” Brittingham says. “When the college closes, it can be very difficult.”
But some have pursued more creative paths. One notable adapter is Southern New Hampshire University, which retains its small-town college campus with a few thousand students while also serving more than 90,000 students online. The institution has tried all kinds of innovative efforts to support its growth and development, like a competency-based education program and a fund to invest in edtech startups.
“I don’t know where that school would be if they hadn’t done that,” Brittingham says.
Betting on Health Care
These trends have been on the minds of leaders at Colby-Sawyer. The school, which was once a women’s junior college and is now coed, laid off seven professors—10 percent of the faculty—and 11 other employees in 2016 due to a $2.6 million projected operating loss. It also cut five majors, including English, which got the liberal arts institution some attention.
Current enrollment is about 850, down from 1,500 in the early 2000s, and the school aims to enroll about 1,100, according to Stuebner.
“There’s a real need to be able to articulate what your value is, making sure we have a compelling story to tell,” she says. “It’s about distinguishing ourselves in the marketplace at a time where there’s really intense competition.”
This demographic and financial pressure comes at the same time that demand for health care workers is rising in the U.S. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts growing employment opportunities for health care practitioners, assistants and social service workers over the next decade, with personal care aide, registered nurse and home health aide ranking among the four occupations expecting the most job growth by 2028.
Aides don’t need advanced degrees, but registered nurses do, and nursing is already one of the most popular majors at Colby-Sawyer. One reason for the popularity is the school’s partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital system, which provides clinical placements to students and hires many of them upon graduation.
“Nursing is a real asset” to a college, Brittingham says. “They tend to be good students, tend to stay and tend to get good jobs afterwards.”
Hoping to build off that momentum, Colby-Sawyer plans to launch five degree programs in 2020: addiction studies, social work, medical laboratory sciences, mental health counseling and health care management (the last of which was one of the majors it cut a few years ago). They’re majors that correspond with health care job openings in the region and positions Dartmouth-Hitchcock needs to fill. Plus, they respond to the heavy toll the opioid epidemic has taken on New Hampshire.
Students in those five fields can enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree, which may make the programs appealing to high school seniors focused on career readiness.
“They will prepare you right for a job,” Stuebner says. “That was a little bit of a surprise for us. We thought we were going to have to offer them at a master’s level.”
The shift will come at a cost. The college plans to cut four full-time faculty positions, eliminate its communication studies major and also cut a few minor programs.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” Stuebner says. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the quality of those programs. As a small institution, we feel like we have to make some really hard decisions going forward.”