For small schools, big enrollment problems

When Rider University announced plans last month to close some academic programs and lay off 14 faculty members, it cited financial struggles and a need "to adapt to the changing climate."

Those challenges are familiar to many other small and mid-sized private colleges in the region. Among the chief concerns: a shrinking pool of traditional college-bound students, continually increasing costs, and a constant need to prove value.

For private colleges, lack of state funding leads to dependency on tuition dollars; for smaller schools, enrollment can vary wildly and is never guaranteed. The resulting crunch has hit colleges hard in recent years.

"If there's nothing else the Great Recession taught us from a few years ago in higher ed, it's that it can't be business as usual," said Donald B. Taylor, president of Cabrini College.

"The old strategy of the admissions office working to buy thousands of names from testing services, and bombarding prospects with letters and emails and trying to give merit-based awards, that I feel is kind of a flawed strategy, and it's played out," he said.

Instead, Taylor and others said, smaller private schools are focused on demonstrating their value to prospective students and their families by marketing specialty niches and connections with the professional world. They're also looking to develop revenue sources outside tuition.

On Friday afternoon, two weeks after the layoff announcement, Rider's faculty union and administration agreed to freeze salaries and enact other savings to spare the program cuts and faculty layoffs.

That gives the university two more years to stem declining enrollment, caused in part by changing demographics.

"Rider, and higher education as a whole, needs to adapt to the changing climate, particularly with a declining pool of college-age students," the university said in an Oct. 29 statement when it announced its program closures and layoffs.

The number of public high school graduates in New Jersey will decline about 5 percent this decade, according to federal Education Department projections. In Pennsylvania, the drop is expected to be more than 6 percent.

Faced with the shrinking pool, colleges are defining target populations and marketing themselves aggressively.

"What colleges do is they compete. They recognize they're operating in a market, so they design programs that appeal directly to segments of the population," said Richard Ekman, president of the Washington-based Council of Independent Colleges.

Susannah Coleman, vice president for institutional advancement at Chestnut Hill College, noted new majors, internships, and sports at her school.

"For several years now, we have anticipated difficulties because of slowing enrollment and have worked hard to continue to be attractive to students and their families during these challenging times," she wrote in an email.

Smaller schools can take advantage of their size by being flexible, Ekman said. In the past, he said, private colleges were among the first to establish internships with private industry, establish "experiential learning" opportunities, and professionalize some programs.

Anything, he said, to help the school better fulfill a need.

"The next frontier for innovating, being ahead of the curve, is offering online courses," Ekman said.

Many schools in the Northeast are broadening their marketing beyond their usual recruiting territory, seeking students from other parts of the United States.

"A lot of Northern colleges are now doubling down on their recruiting in the Southwest and Southeast. Some colleges also try to make international connections," he said.

Despite the demographic downturn, several colleges and universities are seeking to grow enrollment. After all, administrators said, scale is important when you are heavily dependent on tuition for revenue.

Without the state funding that public colleges receive, private schools depends on tuition, donations, and any other revenue streams.

Rosemont College is looking to become less tuition-dependent by growing the school's endowment, increasing auxiliary enterprises such as facilities rentals, and fund-raising, said college president Sharon Latchaw Hirsh.

"Demographics - and therefore enrollment - are so potentially volatile that the less tuition-dependent you can be, the better," she said.

About 70 percent of Rosemont's revenue currently comes from tuition, she said. The endowment, while still small, has more than doubled since her 2006 return to her alma mater, and she hopes to see it triple. The college is currently in a fund-raising campaign with a $40 million goal, some of which will go toward the endowment; the rest goes to physical projects or annual expenditures.

Hirsh also hopes to grow Rosemont's enrollment slightly, as does Taylor, the Cabrini president.

Both schools also have recently cut tuition to try to attract families that otherwise might have been turned away by sticker price.

Of the more than 670 members of the Council of Independent Colleges, most are doing fine, and some are booming, Ekman said.

"But maybe a fifth or so are having serious problems, and the question is, can they think their way through?" he said.

When Taylor arrived at Cabrini in 2014, he said, "the biggest thing was to really increase our brand awareness. . . . We needed to create buzz in a big way."

Buzz can lead to more enrollment, donations, internships, and partnerships.

"I heard a lot, when I was reaching the institution, that Cabrini is the best-kept secret on the Main Line," Taylor said. "When you're in the sales business - and believe me, we're in the sales business - it's not a good thing to be the best-kept secret."

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