College Collapse: The End of the Tiny College?

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First, on the Times Free Press, we read:

Tennessee Temple University is moving — not across town to Woodland Park Baptist Church, as planned a year ago, but 300 miles away, to merge with Piedmont International University, a private Christian college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Temple’s 15-member board of trustees is expected to approve a vote on the issue today. Trustees at Piedmont unanimously approved the merger Monday…

Temple is calling it quits in Chattanooga after decades of dwindling enrollment and several failed efforts at breathing new life into the 70-year-old school…

“I invested two years and have to go somewhere else,” said sophomore Kristin Pankey. “My credits may not transfer — that’s what a lot of people are worried about.”

Next, we read from Business Insider:

A women’s liberal arts college in Virginia announced Tuesday that the spring 2015 semester would be its last — even though the school still has a $94 million endowment.

Sweet Briar College — located near Lynchburg, Virginia — will close “as a result of insurmountable financial challenges,” the school said in a statement.

Sweet Briar administrators cited several trends that informed the decision to close, including the declining number of female students interested in all-women colleges and the dwindling number of students overall interested in small, rural liberal arts colleges.

Have you ever heard of Sweet Briar College or Tennessee Temple University? Let me answer that for you: No. I’ve never heard of them either. These schools are obscure. They are both in the middle of nowhere. But they are not alone. There are hundreds of tiny, no-name liberal arts colleges across the US.

The average yearly tuition for a tiny liberal-arts college is $50,000 per year. For a tiny school that nearly no employers have ever heard of and which has approximately zero prestige, $50,000 is beyond insane. But parents send their kids to these places anyway, which is mildly baffling. For a third of the price, a parent could send their kid to a State institution and get a comparable education with a school that at least has name recognition. For some degrees, distance-learning online is even a sound option. A distance-learning degree is at least no worse than a degree from no-name Podunkville College, for a fraction of the price.

We hear a lot about the “college experience”, a four-year period of supposed self-discovery, friendship, learning, and romance that every young adult should experience. A lot of parents buy in to this idea, which is a mistake. We all know (except certain parents, apparently) what the “college experience” really is: four years of experimenting with sex, drugs, alcohol, crazy partying, and forced indoctrination by wacky left-wing professors. Some parents pay $50,000 per year for their kid to become a soft alcoholic, play Russian Roulette with STDs, and have their brains hammered by left-wing professors. It boggles the mind.

Let’s be honest about the other reason why parents send their kids to these schools: to get an MRS degree (especially, of course, where the daughters are concerned). Parents get lost in this idyllic fantasy in which their child meets a lovely girl/boy at school, engages in chaste 1950’s-style courtship for a few years, then marries right out of college and goes on to be wildly successful in life with their lovely spouse, useful degree, and clean lifestyle, with grandkids and a house by age 25.

This fantasy does not stack up to empirical reality. The reality is that their child will probably have sexual contact with at least a few different partners, will probably waste a lot of time on partying and bar crawling, and will probably not get a full-time position for a job in their career field anyway. Neither the boy nor the girl will probably get married until their late 20s, at which time grandkids are still years away, delayed partially by a fear of starting a family while one or both of the spouses still carries $50K+ in school debt. Maybe things were different when parents went to college in the 60s and 70s; but this is the reality of college and young adult life in the present era.

It’s amazing that enough parents were willing to send their kids to these tiny liberal-arts colleges to begin with. The trend appears to be reversing, however. For years, the tiny Podunk colleges were able to get by for one reason only: government coddling. Because students and parents could get government-subsidized grants and loans, they could afford to make such poor choices as sending their kid to a third-rate no-name college in Podunkville for $50,000 per year.

But the fortunes are turning against the Podunk liberal-arts colleges. What has happened to Sweet Briar and Tennessee Temple is merely a sign of things to come. Americans are at peak debt, and are no longer taking on new debt en masse, including student loan debt. This is a case of creeping sanity in the public consciousness.  This is bad for tiny liberal-arts colleges who need government-subsidized suckers to keep the whole scam going. But Americans aren’t playing along like they used to. A lot of Americans might still be suckers, but they’re suckers who at least refuse to take on more debt.

Here is my prediction: less and less parents are going to be willing to send their kids to these schools, partially due to unaffordability, but also due to a self-reinforcing spiral of negative perception as these schools continue to close. No student with an ounce of brain matter will want to attend a tiny college on the verge of bankruptcy, whose credits might not transfer to any other schools.

The Higher Education establishment has long scammed students and parents out of tens of thousands of dollars for degrees that are certainly not worth the money. But American families are at peak debt. They are refusing, in the aggregate, to go further into debt. What will happen to the Higher Education Establishment when students refuse to take on much debt? The plights of Sweet Briar and Tennessee Temple are merely the first cracks in the hull.

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