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July 31, 2013 3:50 PM The Death of Small, Public Colleges?

By Daniel Luzer

Cynthia Huggins, president of the University of Maine at Machias, writes in a piece for the Huffington Post that trends in higher education indicate that colleges like hers may not survive, and that’s a really bad thing for America.

Take one very small public residential college, preferably with a microscopic endowment, and drop it in a rural location with high poverty and unemployment rates, rapidly declining demographics, and an aging population. Then flat-fund, at best, its state appropriation and freeze tuition, maybe even for several consecutive years. Stock the curriculum with excellent liberal arts degree programs, but charge the underpaid faculty with serving the workforce needs of the local, struggling, natural-resource-based economy. Now add a campus infrastructure with patched roofs, potholes, and several stately but elderly buildings barreling toward serious—though not yet dangerous—disrepair. Oh, and toss a million dollars of debt into the mix.
What have you got? A fairly typical small public college.

The education reforms coming to America will likely favor, Huggins explains, large research universities, a few private colleges with large endowments, and for-profit programs that operate online. There’s a good reason for this, because these institutions have more power, in the form of resources, to control their fates, but

That’s really a shame, because the unique combination of very small size + low tuition + residential campus + liberal arts education = a college experience that is ideally suited for many students. With all due respect to our many excellent small private colleges and large research universities, this option has allowed generations of bright young high school graduates the opportunity to live in a highly supportive, residential college setting and earn an affordable bachelor’s degree that prepares them not just for their first job, but for a meaningful, lifelong career.

This is important. Talk to most any professional, middle-class family, the kind that owns a small house in an ordinary suburban neighborhood and sends its kids to college, and you’ll likely discover the reason they got there, their path to economic security, came through the first person in that family to go to college. But what kind of college? Usually it’s a small public college, the institutions that started out as normal schools or colleges of mechanical and agricultural science.

American policymakers often talk about college as the “path to the middle class.” That’s true, but not just any old college will do. The truth is, historically, the actual road that a family took from working in mines or factories to professional jobs took them through a very specific type of college, a small public one. It’s short-sighted to think that these institutions can just fall away without severe consequences for American social and economic life.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

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