Thursday, December 18, 2014

Small Colleges #2: Enrollment

The initial post in this series provided an overview of 364 small institutions with enrollments of less than 1,000.  

When one closes, like Saint Paul's College in Virginia did a little over a year ago, there can be a flurry of articles sounding similar themes.  As an example, the Chronicle ran an article "College's Closure Signals Problems for Others"  the following month that included a quote from Moody's Investor's Services, “The pending closure is credit negative for a small subset of the higher-education sector with similar attributes to Saint Paul’s and other closed colleges: very small, private colleges with a high reliance on student charges, indistinct market positions, and limited donor support,”  Further in the article, a Moody’s analysts said. “We anticipate more closures for these types of colleges given the current pressures on all higher-education revenue sources and increased accreditation scrutiny.”

So, how are the small, private colleges fairing?  This second post will focus on changes in enrollment over the past decade.  A third post will follow with a look at changes in common financial variables like tuition, net price, and endowments.  I'll then have a fourth post where I share my experiences using a couple of financial ratios to draw conclusions about the financial health of these small colleges.

Enrollment:  Changes in enrollment are probably the most widely watched variable at most institutions.  This is particularly true at small colleges where there is little margin for error and tuition is often the principle source of revenue.  FTE enrollment provides a common measuring stick among institutions that may or may not have graduate students or others that may or may not have not have many part-time students.

FTE enrollment for the small institutions as a group was very stable  over the ten year period. The chart below and the table that immediately follows include mean and median enrollment figures.

Enrollment across all the institutions increased by 1,663 or one-tenth of a percent and the mean values only increased by one student.

How do the figures for the small institutions contrast with changes during the same period among all U.S. degree granting institutions? Whether by design or due to difficulty in attracting students, the small institutions experienced very modest growth in enrollment when compared with the broader measure of U.S. fte enrollment which increased 23%.


Though enrollment appears stable to modestly higher when looking at the small group statistics, there are difference among the small institutions when viewed by Carnegie classification or when you look at individual institutions.  Two hundred-one (201) of the small institutions in this study reported increasing enrollment for the ten year period and 158 saw declines in enrollment. 

Baccalaureate institutions and the tribal colleges were the two categories seeing overall declines in enrollment.  Among the other categories, institutions focusing on medical and health professions, schools of art, music and design, and schools of business or engineering recorded double digit increases.

Different patterns of enrollment change are also certainly evident at the institutional level.  The following table includes the five institutions with the largest increases and the five with the largest decreases for the decade.  In the latter group, Virginia Intermont College closed this past spring.  Paul Quinn College has struggled for some time and Wilberforce University has been in the news this year as welcomed a new president and launched a fundraising effort to avoid possible loss of accreditation.

Thanks for reading and I certainly look forward to hearing your thoughts or questions!