St. John's College is trying to protect its greatest asset.
"The only reason for St. John's to exist is our academic program," said Panayiotis Kanelos, president of its Annapolis, Maryland, campus, in an interview with Education Dive earlier this year. "We don't do sports teams, we don't do flashy things, we don't even have extravagant dorm rooms. We do discussion."
But that asset was becoming unaffordable to students, with tuition growing at three times the rate of inflation during the last two decades.
It is one of several liberal arts colleges of late to double down on its value proposition: providing students with a focused, intimate curriculum steeped in the humanities and imbued with training in critical thinking and communication. Yet it's also an area in which students' interest appears to be waning.
St. John's and its peers are up against more than just a shift in what programs attract students. Small enrollments make these colleges vulnerable to closure, as do hefty tuition discounts and high reliance on tuition revenue, according to a report from consultant EY-Parthenon.
And not all schools have been successful. Green Mountain, Newbury and Southern Vermont colleges have all closed this year in a trend that is heavily focused in the Northeast but by no means limited to it. The closures have even spurred proposed legislation in the New England region and nationally to keep better tabs on these instiutions' financial positions.
Throughout 2019, Education Dive heard from officials from a handful of small liberal arts colleges around the U.S. that are weathering this transition. We learned they are deploying a variety of tactics: slashing tuition, increasing discounts and fundraising to steady their revenue streams, as well as looking for ways to stand out.
"People who are interested in supporting higher education need a reason to support you," Hampshire College President Edward Wingenbach told Education Dive in an interview last month. "If your reason is, 'Well we look kind of like everyone else, but we're in Iowa rather than Nebraska,' — that's not really a great reason."
While these colleges are underway with their changes, they aren't finished. And those that succeed will offer a template for their peers to move forward. Read on to learn more about what they are doing so far.