Size Matters

Only ten schools were chartered in the British North American colonies before the Revolution, according to Josiah W Leeds’ 1878 History of the United States of America. “The number of students in all of the colleges probably did not number more than 300,” wrote Leeds.

That number of students is less than the enrollment in many introductory level classes at our major universities today. And yet, those ten colonial-era colleges, despite their small sizes, produced a long list of remarkable men, such as John Adams from Harvard, Thomas Jefferson from William & Mary, and James Madison from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

Today, with many schools beset by rising costs, shrinking endowments, and large debt loads, perhaps it is time to re-examine the ultra-small school model. It certainly didn’t hold back our Founding Fathers much. And it is still feasible; a number of colleges today aren’t much bigger than their colonial counterparts, and they provide a high quality education without prohibitive tuitions.

Of course, these small schools usually lack the amenities many students expect today. They don’t have the range of choices or the vibrant social life of traditional colleges, either. In fact, they are usually centered on a specific narrow field of study.

But what they lack in diversity and amenities they makes up for in other ways, by being close-knit communities of learners and teachers united by their common interests.

And their no-frills approach tackles the single biggest problem small schools must face: money. Imagine a hypothetical school of 100 students, each paying $10,000 per year in tuition. With $1 million in revenue, a school could hire seven professors–not world-renowned researchers but quality instructors—at $90,000 a year in pay and benefits, and still have $370,000 for administrative costs and facilities. Throw in a few hundred thousand more from donations, and voila! You have a college.

If that sounds too far-fetched, it’s not. Magdalen College in Warner, New Hampshire charges its 70 students $13,750 per year in tuition. It lists a total of 10 faculty members, two of whom are adjuncts and two of whom are also administrators.

Magdalen offers only one bachelor’s degree (in liberal arts). It draws students who are interested in an education that embraces traditional Catholicism and explores Western civilization from a Catholic perspective, with strict rules governing dating and other aspects of campus life. Its church affiliation and membership in the Cardinal Newman Society gives it enough publicity among its target population to attract enough applicants, according to Michael Rennie, the school’s vice president of College Advancement and Admissions.

Small schools can struggle, particularly at the start, and that was the case with Magdalen. The school was originally located in a rundown hotel, had a hard time attracting students, and was near to shutting its doors at one point, Rennie said in a phone conversation. But in 1990, a benefactor contributed roughly $10 million, enough to purchase land for its current campus and to construct buildings.

This illustrates a point made by Joseph Bast, the president of the Heartland Institute, an Illinois free market think tank: it’s a lot easier to turn around a small school that’s having problems with a sizeable donation than a similar amount given to a bigger school.

Bast is a trustee at Shimer College, another ultra-small school that has had a rocky road. It was founded as a women’s college in Mount Carroll, Illinois, during the 19th century. By the 1950s, it was a thriving coeducational school of 400 students affiliated with the University of Chicago, with a curriculum centered on the Great Books. But when commuter rail service to Mount Carroll from Chicago ended in the 1970s, the school became isolated and dramatically lost enrollment.

Shimer then moved to Waukegan, Illinois, but, according to Bast, being located in the middle of that city’s urban blight exacerbated the enrollment problems. At one point, Bast said enrollment dropped to less than 50 students. However, a subsequent move to the campus of Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago appears to have stabilized the school, and enrollment is now back up to 106.

Bast said the Board of Trustees hope to get it back up to 300 to 400 students, which they consider optimal size for a Great Books college (he added that the faculty and students would rather to keep it at its present size).

Shimer and Sterling College in Craftsbury Commons, Vermont, a school with roughly 100 students that focuses on the environment, are both tuition-driven—tuition makes up the vast majority of their revenues. (According to William Woottan, Sterling’s president, pay-outs from the endowment only make up one percent of operating costs). Sterling and Shimer both charge annual tuition between $23,000 and $24,000 for the 2009-10 school year (slightly more than $30,000 when room, board, and other costs are taken into consideration, but still far less than the $50,000 it costs to attend many other private colleges).

Some ultra-small schools began with such large donations, however, and are able to offer free tuition. The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia is one, and has been able to attract some of the top musical talent in the country for its 160 students. It receives nine times as many applications as there are vacancies.

The Webb Institute also is tuition-free for its 70 students. It is located in Glen Cove, New York, in a waterfront mansion on Long Island, and also offers only one degree, in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Despite such a narrow focus, it turns away a majority of applicants, and its most recent freshman class averaged approximately 1990 on the three-part SAT test (out of a possible 2400).

Other schools must be both less selective and more creative. Sterling accepts 78 percent of applicants, while Magdalen accepts 81 percent. Both schools have students work on the facilities and in the kitchens to cut costs. According to William Wootton, Sterling’s president, half of the students’ pay and half of the work-study program’s administrative costs at the college are federally funded.

Yet, despite the somewhat Spartan conditions and the mandatory work requirements, these schools generally offer very low student-teacher ratios, often in the single digits. For instance, Sterling has a ration of 6: 1, Magdalen is 8:1, and Shimer’s is now about 10:1.

Teaching methods tend to deviate from the standard lecture model. The Socratic method, with teachers posing questions to students during roundtable class discussions, is the primary mode of instruction at many small schools, particularly those with a focus on the great books or the liberal arts. Both Magdalen and Shimer employ this method extensively.

At Sterling College, there is often a mentoring relationship between students and faculty. This comes naturally in such hands-on disciplines as the school’s “sustainable agriculture” and “outdoor leadership” programs. And all students at the Webb Institute work at a salaried job in the maritime industry during “Winter Work Term.”

Obviously, these institutions are not going to be for everybody. Most young people are not so single-mindedly focused as the students at the above ultra-small schools. But American higher education is evolving, largely due to rising costs and increased competition. State appropriations have been decreasing as a percentage of operating costs at public universities, and these schools have been trying to cut costs through super-sized introductory classes and online education programs. Tuitions at private colleges cannot continue to rise as they have, except at the most prestigious private schools. For-profit schools have been carving out an increasing share of the higher education pie by offering relatively inexpensive and convenient education.

The schools that are most susceptible to failure are the less prestigious small liberal arts colleges, according to a report by two Iowa State University researchers. They can get caught in a vicious cycle: they try to deal with rising costs by increasing revenues, but to raise revenues they must increase costs further to add amenities to attract more students, and they wind up spending money they don’t have.

But this is often the result of colleges trying to be full service universities, with lots of majors, sports teams, theatrical performances and so forth. They might be better off taking a lesson from the ultra-small schools: choosing their top programs, cutting back on everything else, limiting enrollment to make their admissions standards higher, and avoiding excessive debt.

While many such traditional private schools are struggling, new small colleges that focus on a specific subject or school of thought are starting up regularly. In one example, next year the American College of History and Legal Studies will open its doors to its initial class of students in Salem, New Hampshire. It is a two-year program for juniors and seniors, and received startup money from the Massachusetts School of Law (with whom it will continue its affiliation). It will also be a no-frills model, with no dorms, no gym, and no student activities. Tuition “is expected to be about $10,000 a year,” according to the Boston Globe.

While not all American college students are interested in total immersion into a lifestyle based on a particular course of study, perhaps more would be if the option became more commonplace, and if costs continue to rise. And, these schools—because of their intense focus—might just turn out to provide better educations than their larger competition in the long run.