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The Small New England College: Endangered or Sustainable?

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New England's rich mosaic of over 150 colleges and universities is potentially at risk. This region of the United States has been the world's academic mecca for much of the past century. But there are early warning signs and concerns of possible upheaval. And the decade ahead will test whether higher learning in New England can successfully demonstrate its resilience and hegemony.

The over-optimistic hope is that ever-escalating costs of higher learning will finally abate, and that somehow the promise of online education will now transform how academic programs are priced and delivered. The over-pessimistic fear, however, is that we might then need far fewer institutions and faculty, that massive and chaotic consolidation could occur across the academic landscape, and that only a few mega-universities, fueled by large and impersonal online courses, will be left standing. The likelihood is something far less cataclysmic, but nonetheless disruptive. Current models for how schools price themselves and deliver their education are simply unsustainable and in serious need of repair.

Those smaller and potentially fragile colleges -- each with its own unique mission and identity -- focus on specific locales, professions, faiths, and arts. Some inculcate the liberal arts as a foundation for responsible adulthood. Others provide regional access and community presence as part of their public mission. The major universities garner the global attention -- and have the deep pockets to experiment, invest and adapt. But the smaller schools play an often unappreciated but still vital role by strengthening student residential life and learning, scholarship, workforce development, and the overall quality of New England life.

Northeastern University's Peter Stokes and I, with the sponsorship of the New England Journal of Higher Education, recently conducted a brief 10-question stress test of presidents of smaller colleges throughout New England.

A clear pattern emerged from these 35 presidents. While bullish on their own school's prospects, they are far less confident for others:

• Two-thirds of the presidents surveyed said their board of trustees expected them to rapidly develop a strategy for online education. The presidents, though, know this cannot happen quickly or haphazardly.

• These presidents still agree with their trustees: 71 percent felt it necessary for their schools to consider significantly different models of education in order to compete successfully. One president wrote that colleges "must change their business model or die."

• Most were not critical of peer institutions for jumping on the online bandwagon -- they know digital learning is here to stay. Nor that seeking new revenue streams particularly from part-time adult learners would be contrary to the mission and values of these schools.

• The majority believed that many local peer institutions will be shuttered within five years. Almost half questioned whether the iconic New England college could remain an important fixture. Bluntly stated by one president: "If your institution does not have a well-defined market niche ... be that market in or out of New England, it is toast."

• But 86 percent were confident that their institution has the talent, agility, and quality to confront the challenges in the years ahead. The majority also believed they had the faculty flexibility and creativity to make this happen.

New England is characterized not only by its major brand-name schools, but also by its rich array of institutions serving multiple populations and purposes. Academic institutions are naïvely built to last centuries, but their ability to endure cannot be taken for granted. As economist Herbert Stein once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." This is sadly true for all institutions: their eventual demise is not a question of if, but when. The ability to prolong the longevity of smaller colleges will be severely tested in the coming years.

Their academic leaders will need to better articulate the value of this institutional diversity, and explore creative ways of facilitating interdependence among institutions and practical opportunities for collaboration, experimentation, alliances, resource-sharing, and outsourcing. They will need to inspire their people to build new educational and financial models. But the fate of these schools will not be in their hands alone. Their communities, boards, alumni, and supporters will need to demonstrate that these institutions are treasures worth preserving.

Jay A. Halfond is former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College, currently on sabbatical, serving as the Innovation Fellow for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.