More need college education, but will colleges be around to provide it?

Posted Sept. 27, 2013, at 12:35 p.m.
College of the Atlantic Capt. Toby Stephenson and COA senior Rachel Sullivan-Lord search for whales while leading an “old school” whale watching tour aboard the COA research boat Osprey on Sept. 19, 2013. COA emphasizes hands-on, project-oriented learning.
College of the Atlantic Capt. Toby Stephenson and COA senior Rachel Sullivan-Lord search for whales while leading an “old school” whale watching tour aboard the COA research boat Osprey on Sept. 19, 2013. COA emphasizes hands-on, project-oriented learning. Buy Photo

Experts say Maine’s future economic success hinges in part on a greater portion of the state’s population becoming college-educated. But long-term survival is uncertain for many of the institutions that provide that college education.

At the very least, many are warning that small colleges and universities, particularly in New England, are in for a shakeup.

“You really can’t read the paper or turn on the TV without looking at some sense of the fact that higher education is really shifting,” said Darron Collins, president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. “A lot of change is going on.”

The official statistics haven’t shown it yet, but it’s expected nationwide that enrollment in colleges and universities, which grew 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, is starting to grow more slowly or even shrink. Tuition has risen well beyond the pace of inflation year after year, and that’s catching up with private colleges and scaring away families.

In Maine and New England, the challenges run deeper.

Doubt in the future

Presidents of small colleges in New England are largely confident their institutions can weather a shakeup in the higher education marketplace. But in a recent survey by the New England Journal of Higher Education, just 57 percent of those presidents agreed that, “The small New England college will remain an important fixture within the academic landscape for many years to come.”

“If your institution does not have a well-defined market niche … that is robust, be that market in or out of New England, it is toast,” one college president wrote in response to the survey.

In a region that’s the oldest in the nation, colleges that depend on enrolling students from within New England face a demographic challenge: The region’s traditional college-age population is shrinking.

In Maine, the number of school-age students — tomorrow’s college enrollees — has been on a steady decline, and that’s expected to continue. By 2030, according to state population projections, Maine’s 15- to 19-year-old population — the demographic colleges would typically look to for their next crop of students — is projected to shrink 16 percent below where it was in 2010.

That means colleges need to look beyond New England’s high schools for their next students, and recruiting from a wider geographic area can be more competitive and costly.

By some measures, that expense and others are catching up with New England’s and the nation’s colleges. The consulting firm Bain and Company last year released a report that found a third of the nation’s colleges and universities were on a financially unsustainable path. Revenues — almost entirely from tuition, in the case of private colleges — hadn’t kept pace with growing expenses between 2006 and 2010.

“If you are the president of a college or university that is not among the elites and does not have an endowment in the billions,” wrote report authors Jeff Denneen and Tom Dretler, “chances are cash is becoming increasingly scarce — unless you’re among the most innovative.”

Expanding prospective student body

College enrollment — among full- and part-time students — has grown nationwide in recent years, but it has been slower in Maine and New England. Enrollment grew 21.7 percent nationwide between 2004 and 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In New England, enrollment grew 16.1 percent during that period, and it grew 11.8 percent at Maine’s public and private post-secondary institutions.

Community colleges have accounted for much of Maine’s growth as well as growth at private institutions such as the University of New England in Biddeford and Bangor’s Husson University. Husson’s full-time enrollment grew nearly 80 percent in recent years, from 1,290 full-time students in the fall of 2004 to 2,300 in fall 2011.

Husson’s niche as an institution focused on career-driven majors, an emphasis on practical, on-the-job experience for students, and its ability to adapt to changing professional expectations have helped, said Husson’s president, Robert Clark.

“We’re not trying to be all things to all people, but we’re trying to be excellent to those people that are seeking professional preparation,” he said.

Maine’s demographics don’t work in colleges’ favor, so Husson has pursued a few different strategies to grow its universe of potential recruits. One is to appeal to adults who have accrued some college credit but dropped out before earning a degree. There are about 200,000 Maine adults who fall into that category, and the University of Maine System is also embarking on an effort to enroll some of them.

Husson has also pursued partnerships with some of the state’s community colleges — where enrollment has grown more than 80 percent over the past decade — so it can attract community college students who want to transfer their credits and complete the last two years of a bachelor’s degree at Husson.

And through its online course offerings, Husson has expanded its prospective student body beyond New England. The Bangor university is accredited to offer online classes to graduates of Canada’s public community colleges looking to complete four-year degree programs.

“Those institutions that demonstrate that they add value will be here in 10 years because they’ve learned to adapt and project themselves and prepare their students,” Clark said. “Those institutions that lack that will lose some of their edge.”

Doubling down on specialties

At the much smaller, environment-focused College of the Atlantic, adaptation looks much different.

As a 40-year-old “experimental college” in Bar Harbor, “we’ve always taken an alternative perspective on higher education in the U.S.,” said Collins, president of the 350-student college and a 1992 alumnus.

“A primary piece of our puzzle has always been a hands-on approach to learning, learning by doing things, a project-oriented pedagogy,” he said. “It’s something that a small school like College of the Atlantic can really do a lot better than a larger school. We want to do more of what we’re really good at.”

That means adaptation at the College of the Atlantic doesn’t mean diving into online learning, as it does for many other colleges and universities.

“A lot of what we do here requires face-to-face learning, learning in the field,” Collins said. “We are very much a place-based institution. Being here is part of the educational experience.”

While carving out a market niche is key to the future for small colleges and universities, that won’t guarantee those institutions can overcome every challenge.

Much of the challenge involves simply being small.

“As a small institution, we are very, very susceptible to changes,” Collins said. “It’s a bit trickier financially. Depending on the number of students and what finances they bring, it can swing wildly from year to year, and that can be difficult to manage.”

Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.

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