School's out forever
On student loan debt, well-paid trades, and the creative thinking needed to keep small colleges from closing
Iowa's second-oldest institution of higher learning will be closing after more than 180 years in operation, following a protracted period of shallow enrollments and deep budget problems. It's an unfortunate turn of events for those who view institutions as being intrinsically valuable; nobody likes to see a college closed down if it can be avoided.
■ But it's also worth noting that the problems of keeping higher-education institutions open isn't about to become easier. There are well-known demographic problems ahead that will challenge many colleges in the very near-term future, not just the small ones. There was a baby bust starting in 2008, and it's now almost 18 years later.
■ There's also a cultural shift that has changed the dynamics of how people value a four-year residential education. Irritation with high debt loads has grown. Certifications are as marketable in some fields as degrees. The trades are paying well.
■ Now would be a very appropriate time for those who haven't done so yet to take a good hard look at alternative and hybrid methods of making colleges and universities both better-priced and more valuable to both prospective students -- and alumni.
■ The life experiences and intangible socialization skills that come from a residential college experience are extremely hard to substitute. College is broadly considered a safe space for young adults to explore their identities and form deep and meaningful friendships. That experience isn't for everyone, though, and America has been long overdue for some social recognition of the value of trade programs and institutions like community colleges.
■ Bricks-and-mortar campuses need to be clear-eyed about what it is that they deliver to students beyond the educational product that they encounter in the classroom. If the "educational" component of a higher-ed experience isn't somehow unique, then perhaps the institution is mainly selling a social experience rather than an educational one. That may be entirely fine to do.
■ But when that is the case, it may be prudent, at least for some schools, to outsource the educational component itself to a firm or an institution that can specialize in the quality of educational delivery, leaving the bricks-and-mortar institution to focus on the student life experience instead. It might make sense for a small liberal arts college without any otherwise particularly distinguishing educational programs or features to outsource the classroom education component to an online learning institution. Some of them are very good, very affordable, and thoroughly accredited.
■ A college campus can't be readily converted to a lot of other things, but it might make sense to take an existing campus and focus on enhancing the features that would attract residential students while letting someone else handle the classroom content. Who is to say that a few hundred or even a few thousand students might not want to live together, share a library and a student union, meet for club activities, and even cheer on some sporting teams -- all while taking classes either on their own time, or in semi-structured arrangements?
■ It's possible that no such clever ideas would have saved a school like Iowa Wesleyan, or others in similar situations. But so much has been invested in many of these colleges over time -- and their value is so hard for the remaining community to recover when a campus closes down -- that ideas from well outside the conventional box ought to be solicited.