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Small Midwestern Colleges Have Been Through It All. Can They Make It Through The Pandemic?

Westminster College opened in Fulton, Missouri, in 1851. But like many small, rural colleges dotting the Midwest, it faces an uncertain future.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Westminster College opened in Fulton, Missouri, in 1851. But like many small, rural colleges dotting the Midwest, it faces an uncertain future.

The image of a small Midwestern college is one of quiet, peaceful campus nestled in a rural town.

Some now fear the global pandemic could silence many small schools altogether.

The coronavirus upended higher education this spring. Colleges had to lock down and refund thousands of dollars of tuition to students.

On the heels of financial struggles in higher education, the pandemic could land a death blow to smaller colleges dotting rural Missouri and Illinois. Over the past several years, economists have made dire predictions that many small colleges, possibly up to half, will go bankrupt and close in the next decade.

“We get concerned about it. However, we've been fortunate that we see more folks wanting to be here,” said Don Lofe, interim president at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri.

Through the Civil War, world wars and plenty of economic downturns, colleges like Westminster have continued to graduate students. But over the past two years, about a dozen small colleges have closed for good. Among them is MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. After 174 years, the coronavirus pandemic was one punch on the chin too many.

School leaders argue they still hold a valuable position in the higher education landscape: a robust liberal arts education rooted in small class sizes, strong student support services and idyllic settings.

“I still believe personally, and I think a lot of people do, that there is a need for traditional college education,” said Dan Westhues, a board member at William Woods University, also located in Fulton.

Higher education financial experts are less rosy on the outlook.

Forbes magazine gives colleges letter grades based on their financial health. Numerous small schools in Missouri and Illinois earn poor marks. Westminster and Williams Woods get C’s. Culver-Stockton College, Hannibal-LaGrange University and Quincy University all have D’s.

“These organizations are going to tell you ‘We're going to survive,’ but they're not in large numbers,” said Gary Stocker, a college administrator-turned-analyst.

Stocker worked at Lindenwood University and Westminster College before starting College Viability, a website aimed at tracking and presenting college financial data to worried college officials and curious parents.

“And you see some really, really ugly numbers,” he said.

Many of these colleges rely too much on endowment spending and alumni donations, rather than strong student bodies to pump in tuition dollars, Stocker said. They have little cash on hand and endowments too small to weather strong headwinds.

“These small rural colleges are not profitable enough year in and year out to be able to have long-term viability,” Stocker said.

It’ll also be harder to promote the picturesque college experience if colleges have to remain locked down and there are no in-person classes or athletics — another big recruitment tool for some small schools.

“We feel we provide a unique experience,” said Lofe, the head of Westminster. “Many colleges are going to say that, but we've been able to demonstrate that with actions. For instance, athletics, the other experiences we have on campus.”

COVID-19 also upended finances for colleges. Having to send students packing in March and issue refunds was a major expense. Federal aid programs enacted by Congress in the spring helped cover some of the losses.

“I would just tell you this, we managed it well,” Lofe said. “Our college is very stabilized right now with respect to financial matters. But throughout the years, like many colleges, revenue streams have caused issues as well as the demographics that are changing, as you know, with respect to available students in the population to go to college.”

Ryan Delaney / St. Louis Public Radio
Westminster College Board of Trustees Chair Jim Morton and Interim President Don Lofe on the campus in Fulton, Missouri, in July.

Fewer high school graduates and the growing sticker shock of a private college education will mean schools have to evolve or possibly die out.

“I don't expect a mass extinction of small private colleges, but we may see several years' worth of closures in just a few weeks or months, so I wouldn't be surprised if a few of the small private colleges in the Midwest end up closing,” said Robert Kelchen, a Missouri native and associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

While Westminster boasts being around since the Civil War, Culver-Stockton College can brag that it survived a tornado shortly after graduation in 2003.

Douglas Palmer is the new president of Culver-Stockton in Canton, Missouri. Any big aspirations he had when he accepted the job in February, before the pandemic, may need to wait.

“I would not expect that many colleges and universities in the area or even in the country are going to be doing a whole lot of hiring or investment in capital projects until we're through this crisis,” he said.

He first must focus on maintaining an enrollment of 1,100 students and paying the people who educate them. “I think it's been harder here, and I think it will continue to be hard.”

Recruiting traditional students to rural pockets of the Midwest, even with appealing tuition discounts and scholarships, is getting harder, said Westhues, the William Woods board member. “And so we certainly have seen that over the years, but I think that's actually kind of a decent thing because what it's forced us to do is be creative, and it's forced us to evolve.”

William Woods is investing in online programs and degree completion for older adults. Westminster is focused on expanding recruitment and supporting students. It also wants to find a new niche, such as cybersecurity, that "will be a strong selling point."

But going after nontraditional students will have to balance with the core product.

"The liberal arts education gives you the ability to think, think just not analytically, but creatively. And those are words but they're really, I believe in those very strongly," Lofe said. "And I believe this type of education, this type of institution provides that."

Stocker and other industry watchers advocate for mergers of small colleges to reduce costs. Health care provides an example. What were once dozens of small hospitals run by religious orders around the region are now operated by a single hospital system.

Still, the worst-case scenarios many predicted for colleges and universities this fall so far don’t appear likely. Some estimates this spring suggested fall enrollments would be down by up to 20%, with students perhaps choosing to stay closer to home or take a gap year.

But as of now Westminster, William Woods and most other small colleges say students are planning to return when campuses reopen this fall, even if it won't be for a typical semester.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Westminster College Board of Trustees Chair Jim Morton and Interim President Don Lofe on the campus in Fulton, Missouri, in July.
Ryan Delaney / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Westminster College Board of Trustees Chair Jim Morton and Interim President Don Lofe on the campus in Fulton, Missouri, in July.

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.