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Small, Private Colleges in Danger of Closing

Many Americans have probably never heard of McIntosh College in the northeastern state of New Hampshire.

The same might be said for St. Catharine College in Kentucky or Bethany University in California.

But these schools had two things in common: They were small, private colleges, and they closed in the past 10 years.

The U.S. has over 4,700 colleges and universities. Almost every year some older schools close, while other schools open.

Now, experts are warning that more small, private colleges will close down. Yearly closings may triple by 2017, they say, representing a 200 percent increase compared to two years ago.

Moody’s Investor Service rates the value and success of companies and organizations. Last year, it released a report about U.S. college closures, and said about five colleges or universities closed every year in the past.

But closures may reach as high as 15 by next year. It said small colleges are the most at risk.

The report defines small colleges as any private school with operating revenue below $100 million. Public colleges were defined as those with revenue below $200 million.

Dennis Gephardt is a leader of the higher education team at Moody’s. He points out that the predicted number of closures is less than 1 percent of non-profit colleges and universities in the U.S. He said it is difficult for small, private colleges to compete with bigger schools.

First, bigger schools can accept more students. This means more revenue through tuition.

An endowment is the amount of money a college or university receives from donations and earnings on investments. Schools often use their endowments to help pay for their day-to-day operations. Endowments can also help pay for operating costs if there is ever a decrease in tuition dollars.

Larger schools often have larger endowments, or donations. Traditionally, schools ask graduates to donate money to their school to improve programs and facilities.

Bigger schools can offer more programs and can afford to advertise more widely. In some cases, Gephardt says, bigger schools offer more variety than smaller schools for the same cost.

The economic recession in the U.S. forced many students to think about value, he adds, meaning they thought about what they would get in return for the price they were paying. More students considered bigger, public colleges that could offer more financial aid. He says this forced smaller colleges to compete with each.

"They compete and compete ferociously on price," he says. Weaker schools couldn't keep up.

One school that faced hard times is Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Sweet Briar, a private women’s college, opened in 1901. In 2015, its governing board announced it would close Sweet Briar. It did not discuss its decision with students, teachers or workers.

Students had to find new schools; employees had to find new jobs.

But news of the closure spread. Sweet Briar College alumni and students fought back.

Faculty members and parents took legal action against the board. They argued that their children did not receive the full education the school promised them.

By July 2015, courts ordered the removal of the board’s members and stopped the school from closing. The alumni chose a new president, Philip Stone.

Stone had many years of experience as an educator and college president. But when he arrived at Sweet Briar, about 60 percent of the faculty and staff had already taken new jobs. And he had only six weeks to prepare before fall classes opened.

Stone brought back 200 faculty and staff members. He rescheduled athletic events. He regained Sweet Briar’s accreditation.

The alumni raised more than $20 million over 12 months to pay legal and operating costs.

When the college started the 2015 fall term, it had only 240 students. But Stone saus Sweet Briar’s financial performance for the 2015 to 2016 school year was the strongest in its history.

Stone said he believes Sweet Briar will grow and return to its former standing. He said he believes the strong connection between students at a small college is the reason.

"A graduate three years out of school might call someone she had never met across the country somewhere, maybe out of school 50 years earlier, and they immediately bond by their feeling of being sisters from this special environment of a women’s college," he says.

David Warren, head of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, says the best chance small, private colleges have for success is understanding their own value. Small colleges can offer more personal experiences with smaller class sizes. And often, they can specialize in subjects like nursing or religious studies.

But most importantly, Warren says, small colleges must learn to cut costs. They will be able to compete with larger schools if they can find ways to reduce tuition prices and manage their own money better.

"These little colleges have been around, some for 150 or 200 years. They have an extraordinary dedication by alumni and friends and the local community in which they are located. And there’s a saying around a long time, which is ‘One of the hardest thing to kill is a small private college."

VOA Learning English reported this story.

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