MANY PRIVATE COLLEGES are trying new strategies to stay on course. Regis, which already survived a brush with dangerously low enrollment and shaky finances in the early 2000s, went coed in 2007. Since then, its share of students from outside Massachusetts has more than doubled to 23 percent. It also expanded its graduate programs in high-demand fields such as nursing. “Graduate programs can be a cash cow for a university,” helping subsidize undergraduates, says Paul Vaccaro, the university’s vice president for marketing, communication, and enrollment. Still, Vaccaro acknowledges the challenges. “If you just look at the demographics alone, there’s far more competition for [undergraduates] than there’s ever been and fewer students out there. Sometimes you see enrollments at certain other institutions and you do wonder, ‘How are they going to be able to sustain this?’ ”
Simmons has so far decided to stay all-women, but it also has coed graduate programs that financial records show contribute $24.3 million to the bottom line beyond what they cost to provide. One reason is that 81 percent of Simmons undergraduates get financial aid, while only 20 percent of graduate students do. “That’s why you see so many stand-alone undergraduate institutions scrambling to create master’s programs,” says Simmons president Helen Drinan.
Small colleges need to do a better job persuading students that they’ll get something practical for their money, Drinan says. “You have to turn the story from ‘This is what it costs’ to ‘Here’s what you’ll accomplish with this education.’ ”
That’s one reason Wheaton is adding a business and management major this fall, says spokesman Michael Graca. “For students and parents who are wondering about the value of a college education, the business major illustrates that the liberal arts at Wheaton is a good investment.”
Wheelock is carving out a niche attracting transfer students, whom it recruits from two-year and community colleges and even, quietly, from other four-year schools, reaching out to former applicants and inviting them to reconsider. Like graduate students, transfers usually require less financial aid, helping the college fill seats while conserving money, says Adrian Haugabrook, vice president for enrollment management.
But other institutions have been slower to respond to the challenges. “This is an industry that has not found it necessary until now to employ the organizational disciplines that other industries have employed for quite a while,” says Drinan, a former bank executive. “I absolutely believe, as Bain tells us, that not all these institutions are sustainable. There will be not only consolidations, but downright closings.”
Private colleges desperately need to apply such business principles, says Heather O’Leary, a principal analyst at the Boston education consulting company Eduventures. “Are they all doing it? No. Some people on campuses are derisive of the concept that these institutions should be run like businesses. They feel they are somehow above that.”
Cronin remembers watching private college leaders at a conference listening to yet another expert tell them that their institutions were in trouble. “You could tell that everybody listening was thinking, ‘They’re talking about somebody else, not me,’ ” he says. “How worried should they be? ‘Quite worried’ would be the responsible answer.”
Back in South Lancaster, the ghost campus of Atlantic Union College haunts the town. “You saw all those jobs disappear over a matter of weeks,” says Orlando Pacheco, the Lancaster town administrator. “These were people who had roots in the community.” Local businesses like pizza shops took a hit, and there was a spike in vacancies at off-campus apartments.
“There were also a lot of things that are really tough to calculate in terms of dollars. And this was a small school when it closed,” Pacheco says. “If it were a bigger school, with a bigger budget, it would have absolutely been catastrophic.”
SEATS TO FILL
Massachusetts public and private colleges and universities that still had space in this year’s freshman class (and for transfer students) at the close of the 2012 admissions process.
American International College
Bard College at Simon’s Rock
Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology
Boston Architectural College
Framingham State University