What Small Colleges Need for Their Survival

News of the travails of small colleges has continued throughout the summer. Following Sweet Briar’s planned and later rescinded closure, we have watched others: Ashland’s release of tenured faculty, Bay Path University’s too-optimistic plans for online education, the failed merger of Montserrat College of Art with Salem State, and the yet-to-be consummated merger of Union Graduate College with Clarkson.

What is missing from many of the published stories of these transactions is the extent to which expert, objective, comprehensive analyses were undertaken before the announcement.  My own experience with two transactions at the Thunderbird School of Global Management has provided many lessons.

Small schools, like those mentioned, lack economies of scale, face heavy burdens of fixed, overhead costs, and are often highly dependent on annual tuition revenue. It is no surprise that they struggle. What is saddening is the potential loss of schools like Sweet Briar and Thunderbird. The very good news for Thunderbird is that it survives now as a unit within Arizona State University with the completed merger. We would have lost much if Thunderbird had closed its doors. Its historic origin from a World War II air-training base is palpable as you walk the campus grounds. Thunderbird’s specialized global education is needed now more than ever. Its students with their cognitive complexity and global outlook are terrific. Its independent-minded, globally dispersed alumni are assets to international companies, governments and NGOs around the world.

The presence of distinctive schools like Thunderbird and Sweet Briar strengthens higher education; they add diversity to students’ choices. But preserving them is complex and challenging. The challenge and complexity may not be so evident to those inside the institutions, and that is why expert help is often needed for the future of these valuable, but vulnerable institutions.

Small, vulnerable schools need an objective analysis that often comes best from the outside and those who have experienced the challenges and successes associated with improved institutional viability. Schools need an environmental analysis that offers blunt perspectives of their markets. They need an institutional analysis that reveals the trends and realistically confronts the culture, governance, and financial constraints. Schools have to take into account the complex issues of accreditation and the processes of accrediting bodies. Schools need alternatives; one size does not fit all.

For some small schools, a merger like Thunderbird’s may be the best alternative. For another, it may be new programs, including online ones. For still others, operational changes, including sophisticated CRM, may be the answer. For still others, it may be refinement of what the school stands for in its perceived brand. It may be a partnership with an outside company. And it may be a combination of all of these. But in every case, thorough, objective diagnostics with financial analyses and forecasted trends are the first steps.

I want to see schools like Thunderbird continue to work their magic and educate students. And many alumni and students may say the same for their schools. These great schools deserve an objective look at themselves and their alternatives. Experienced, external expertise is part of the answer.


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