Many Families Aren’t Sending Their Kids to Small Liberal Arts Colleges Anymore. Mine Isn’t, Either. Here’s Why

college with clocktower

In January, two small liberal arts colleges, Green Mountain College in Vermont and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, announced that they were going to close or merge with other schools. They joined the ranks of other small schools that have closed in recent years, such as Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, St. Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, and Marygrove College in Detroit. Sweet Briar College in Virginia was flatlining in 2015 before being resuscitated from certain death, thanks to extreme fundraising efforts by alumnae.

Small private schools suffer from a multitude of problems, including endowments that are tangled in strings, a declining interest in liberal arts, a decreasing pool of college-age kids, competition from online education, and growing administrative expenses. But most importantly, they can’t get families like mine to send their kids to their schools. They don’t have enough students who can pay full freight and are interested in the slower pace of a small liberal arts campus.

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9 thoughts on “Many Families Aren’t Sending Their Kids to Small Liberal Arts Colleges Anymore. Mine Isn’t, Either. Here’s Why

  1. Here’s something I can’t figure out with a quick online search: How many colleges have been founded in the past 20 years?

    It’s possible to run any business poorly. There’s no mandate from heaven that colleges be immune from the curse of incompetency. I would expect a certain percentage of any business to go under every year. There has to be a failure rate for colleges; the question is, what is the natural failure rate?

    It’s quite possible, in my opinion, that the failure of a small number of colleges in the Northeast is more than balanced out by new colleges starting up in other parts of the country. Small, liberal arts colleges have always been a niche market. They likely always have reflected the relative health of wealthy, educated families in their catchment area.

    However, as it becomes more likely to find wealthy, educated families in the South and Southwest of the country, it would be logical to expect such families to educate their children closer to home. That would be Texas, for example, rather than Maine.


  2. Heard someone say recently that they’d heard an analysis by someone associated with University of Washington that schools are planning now for what they see will be a 500K drop in college age students about 10 years from now (because of a drop in child production during the 2008+ recession). Those out West think the effect will be more significant in East Coast colleges.

    “Small, liberal arts colleges have always been a niche market. They likely always have reflected the relative health of wealthy, educated families in their catchment area.”

    But, I don’t think there are any newly founded SLACs out here. I think the “wealthy, educated” families are more and more likely to see the Ivy++++ to be the goal (a set that now includes schools like JHU, Northwestern, U Chicago, . . .).

    The tangled endowments really puts the schools at risk, because they can experience downward spirals quickly, if they have a bad, or a couple of bad years. They can’t weather the variations in popularity, income, student demographics. It creates, as in so much of our current economy, winners and losers.


    1. Yes, there’s about to be a HUGE demographic shift that’s going to impact all aspects of education. That’s my next article.


      1. My sister, who was unimpressed with Warren’s proposal (and with Warren in general), and who has a child going to a SUNY next fall, wrote this: “finding a way to make real change in private education costs, now that would be real change.” She said that $30K in scholarships towards $50K in costs for the private college my niece was accepted was not a help. She wants to see college costs go down.

        I wrote back: “A thought: making public colleges free will put pressure on the private colleges to lower costs. Competition. I know we are feeling it here (at my college).
        It may mean that some colleges will have to close. That’s potentially bad for me, but not a problem overall. We have demographic changes sending fewer students to college.”


    2. Do you have a source for the drop in enrollment? Because looking at Table 1 on this page,, it’s hard to see an emergency. Elementary enrollments are somewhere around 32 million for the last decade or so, and high schools are somewhere around 16 million.

      Enrollment fluctuating around the same (but not exact) level, rather than continuously rising, does not constitute an emergency. It would make it more difficult for colleges to constantly increase the sticker price. Supply & demand and all that.

      As to “winners and losers,” from the students’ side, education costs time and money. As money is fungible, the spending endowments cover would otherwise have to be covered by tuition money. Few students (1/3 or less?) pay full whack at private colleges. However, if that small segment decides a college’s offerings aren’t worth the expense, that’s a bad sign. For one thing, apparently the income from full pay students cover the cost of institutional aid to everyone else, the “net discount rate.”


      1. You got to watch your levels of aggregation, because the drop is real since the recession. You won’t see it if you look at all elementary kids because there were a few higher birth years during the boom. Having lots of kids born in 2006, 2007, and 2008 isn’t going to help college enrollment when the kids born in 2013 and later get to college.


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