I’ve written here before about the tough situation faced by many small liberal arts colleges. Ballooning student costs, self-inflicted administrative bloat, and falling enrollment numbers combine to threaten the viability of most but the richest colleges.
Another case in point now comes out of New Hampshire, where Colby-Sawyer College recently announced a slate of budget cuts that will reverberate across several academic departments. For instance, the liberal arts school, with a current enrollment of about 1,500, took the axe to five major programs: philosophy, health promotion, health care management, accounting, and English. “It’s that hard, hard question of, as a small institution, being able to identify where we can do really well [and] where there’s interest,” Colby-Sawyer President Sue Stuebner recently told the Valley News. The school has also moved to “[cut] seven faculty members and 11 staff members, eliminat[e] 19 open positions and chang[e] 11 more employees’ hours.”
Steubner was made president over the summer with the specific mandate to address the school’s hemorrhaging budget crisis. The college endowment sits at about $38 million, though the school spends about twice as much every year and, even after collecting tuition fees still loses more than $2 million annually (tuition currently runs about $54,000 a year, though the average student only pays 40 percent of that after various discounts).
Steubner, a Dartmouth grad with postgraduate degrees from Harvard, understands the natural complaints to be made against her cost-cutting measures. Namely, how can a liberal arts school ever cut English and philosophy programs? But in response she can point to the simple math that would, if left unchanged, bankrupt the tiny school in a few more years. “If we try to do it all, we’re not going to do anything well,” she told NHPR in July amid declining student enrollment.
There’s something very unfortunate about all this, of course, but administrators like Stuebner are making the best of a bad situation. Colleges like hers need to pick and choose where they’re going to invest their energies, and until they can correct course, they’re smart to play to their strengths (in Colby-Sawyer’s case, this will mean focusing on pre-professional offerings and hands-on learning opportunities, especially in the nursing program).
This is what the higher education crunch in America looks like—and it’s best to remember: things can get worse.