It’s certainly been a year of mixed news for small, private colleges.
In October, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) reported that private, non-profit colleges and universities like Bethany saw an overall enrollment increase of 1.9 percent in 2011. Enrollment at public institutions, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics, dropped 0.3 percent; at for-profit schools, 2.9 percent.
Said NAICU President David Warren, “The data speak volumes about the resiliency of private colleges, and their deep commitment to providing access and affordability.” He cited “efforts by independent institutions to slow tuition increases, boost student aid, and lower students’ actual out-of-pocket costs” as key factors in the rate of enrollment growth at private colleges and universities.
Similar welcome news, we hope, awaits us again this coming autumn about private-institution enrollment trends for 2012. But as the poet Robert Frost might have said, we enrollment-driven colleges have miles to go before we can rest.
Unfortunately, for small, private institutions, resting is a luxury we can ill afford any time. The pressure is on to increase funds for merit scholarships, to package available financial aid attractively and innovatively, and to keep up to date with the quality-of-life campus extras that students and their families expect when choosing a college these days.
Thanks to reaching $45 million and counting in our “Transformation Now” capital campaign, Bethany College has secured funds for new and existing scholarships, academic programs and faculty development, and facility improvements. These dollars are critical to funding our campus master plan, which calls for long-range enhancements to the teaching, learning, and living environment at Bethany.
But as Senior Vice President Sven de Jong and I learned in recent briefings during NAICU’s annual meetings on Capitol Hill, we are simultaneously well advised to keep a wary eye on Washington lawmakers’ deliberations as they confront “fiscal-cliff” budget sequestration.
These automatic federal spending cuts, scheduled to go into effect March 1, would critically reduce Federal Work Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants. Pell Grants, though spared this year, would remain at risk. We have expressed concern for months to legislative representatives in Washington about the potential, harmful impact of reduced Pell Grants and federal budget cuts for higher education, in general. Although we private-college leaders recognize our responsibility to raise the bulk of funds ourselves for enhancing the attractiveness of our institutions to prospective students, Washington still sets much of the tone for consumer confidence, affordability of higher education, and projections of economic stability.
These are critical factors for students and their families as they shop around for the best financial-aid deals at desirable colleges. Although Bethany awards aid packages to the majority of applicants each year, so do most of our peer competitors. Our goal is to leverage financial aid as part of our marketing appeal, signaling that Bethany College is an affordable and worthy investment, and the top choice for some of America’s best and brightest.
There is much else to do to enhance our appeal. We’re looking at additional graduate programs in selected fields, along with the kinds of collaborative and convenient degree-completion options we currently have with Carnegie Mellon, Case Western Reserve, Duquesne, and Columbia universities. As always, we reach out to our alumni and friends for their assistance in recommending Bethany to family members, neighbors, and colleagues who have traditional college-aged sons and daughters. Private colleges also need to pay special attention to non-traditional students—returning veterans, work-experienced learners retraining for the career marketplace, and other special groups who will discover the unique appeal and lasting influence of a quality education at an independent institution.
The annual meeting of another group with which Bethany is closely affiliated, the West Virginia Independent Colleges and Universities, WVICU, showcases top scholarship students who benefit from the funds raised on behalf of West Virginia’s private institutions. At this year’s meeting at Davis & Elkins College, I proudly listened to the presentation of Bethany’s Khristian Smith, a sophomore English major from Marlinton, West Virginia. He is the recipient of a generous scholarship funded by the Schenk Charitable Trust in Wheeling.
As Khristian spoke of his admirable academic interests, student activities, and career plans (he would like to be a college professor and/or an author), I was reminded of why we work so hard to make private higher education available to our students. They are the reason we strive in the halls of Congress and in the homes and businesses of our alumni and friends to tell the compelling story of independent higher education, with all of the freedom such an experience affords for students like Khristian Smith.
They are also the reason that despite the sometimes gloomy outlook for traditional colleges, I remain optimistic for the future of Bethany College—celebrating its 173rd year on Founders Day, March 7, and preparing in just a few months hence to welcome a new generation of Bethanians to our mountain-top campus.
As always, I invite you to join me in celebrating the good work that we do, year after year, and to find a meaningful way to support our mission going forward as A Small College of National Distinction.