Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rural liberal-arts colleges fight enrollment loss by improving connections with their communities

Liberal arts colleges in rural areas struggling with enrollment and financial difficulties are saving themselves by investing in their communities, Douglas Belkin reports for The Wall Street Journal. Of the 300 private four-year colleges in rural areas and small towns, 43 percent saw declines in enrollment from 2009-2014, according to Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. "Though urban and suburban institutions similarly saw enrollment drops, rural college leaders are worried that their remote locations will make it harder for them to recover."

"America’s rural colleges were once the backbone of the country’s higher education system," Belkin notes. "Many of the smaller schools have withstood the Civil War, two World Wars and more recent recessions." (Journal graphic: Shrinking enrollment at rural colleges)
"Today, like other pillars of small-town America, rural schools are in jeopardy," he writes. "Loss of manufacturing jobs, construction work and less lending activity for new businesses have combined to shrink the populations around campus. With many companies either moving or downsizing, there are few work opportunities for those left behind, let alone for new college graduates."

In some rural areas, residents don't pay much attention to the local college, figuring it has nothing to offer them, Belkin writes. Some colleges are trying to change that. For example, southern Michigan's Albion College, where enrollment has dropped 30 percent in the past 10 years, has given 13 full scholarships to local students in the past two years. Mauri Ditzler, who was recently hired as president of the 181-year-old school, told Belkin, “We can’t survive if this town isn’t healthy. And the town can’t survive without us." For more on Albion, see our blog item from Dec. 8.

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