Signs of Trouble Ahead for Small College Librarians | From the Bell Tower

Every sector of the higher education industry faces challenges, but the future outlook for small colleges is even direr. Amidst talk of closures, mergers, and other decline, should librarians at these institutions be worried?

man's head shotEvery sector of the higher education industry faces challenges, but the future outlook for small colleges is even direr. Amidst talk of closures, mergers, and other decline, should librarians at these institutions be worried?

Years ago I was the library director at a small academic institution. If I were still there today, I might be out of a job. Two years ago that institution merged with a much larger local health sciences university. While there was a strong rationale for the merger, given the synergy between the two institutions and challenges the smaller one faced, eventually library operations of the acquired institution will likely diminish in the pursuit of cost efficiencies. For similar small institutions, primarily those whose student enrollment is less than a thousand students, that are tuition driven, with low endowments, and in locations with a high concentration of academic institutions or that are extremely rural, the odds of a closure are becoming more likely than a merger. Then the library simply ceases to exist. Given recent trends in small college mergers and closures, there may be real concern for the future of these institutions and their libraries.

GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE

Past college closings were few and far between. In fact, with several closings in the last two years, the only surprise may be that it’s not happening more often. By far, most college closings involve for-profit institutions. But since 2016 when Education Dive began tracking it, 20 nonprofit colleges have merged or closed. Massachusetts, with its abundance of public and private institutions, looks like ground zero for closures. According to the Boston Globe, these small colleges are highly tuition dependent, but tuition rarely covers institutional costs owing to sizable discounts and declining enrollment. Mount Ida College closed in 2018, Newbury College will close in 2019, and Hampshire College announced it needs a more financially stable partner to help it survive. These repeated closures and threats of more are now so concerning that the state legislature is seeking to protect students in the event of closures or mergers. That alone should have small colleges alarmed about their future prospects. These announcements used to come as a shock. When Green Mountain College announced it was closing, a rural Vermont college with less than 500 students and a paltry $3 million endowment, the reaction was more along the lines of, “How did it stay open this long?”

THINKING ABOUT SURVIVAL

There is no exact definition, but “small college” usually applies to institutions with up to 5,000 students. At greatest risk of closure are those institutions where enrollment has dropped below 1,000 students and has declined continuously for the last three years, the endowment is only in the double digits (in millions), and there is considerable debt on the balance sheet. Indicators of impending collapse can include calls to shut down under-enrolled majors in the liberal arts, an exodus of top-ranking administrators, persistent budget cuts, and growing deferred maintenance. If that’s the case and the president and provost have no turnaround plan, it’s deeply troubling. Threatened colleges that see danger ahead are taking action to avoid the fate of Mount Ida, Newbury, and others. "Small Colleges Get Experimental in Bid to Survive” profiles institutions that are taking drastic measures to remain viable. Whether it’s terminating academic programs, eliminating top paying administrator positions, adding career-oriented degrees, or paying down debt, survival means stopping status quo drifting and taking immediate proactive action to stop losses. The biggest challenge for small, struggling institutions is simple but evasive—attracting more students or strategically identifying the just-right enrollment size, but achieving it without drastic tuition discount rates.

MANAGING THROUGH A MERGER

Though librarians at small colleges may know the current outlook does not bode well for them, most manage to stay optimistic that their institution is going to survive and thrive. Would any librarian be prepared for the worst? Sam Boss experienced what can happen to a small college library firsthand when he learned that his institution, Lyndon State College (LSC) would merge with its sister college, another small Vermont institution, Johnson State College (JSC). They merged in 2018 to form Northern Vermont University (NVU). Though both campuses remain, each with a physical library, there was intensive change to merge the two into a single operation with one budget. I asked Boss, then library director at LSC and now leader of the merged libraries, if he foresaw this coming and his initial reactions. He told me it was not a big surprise: parties on both campuses, as well as a number of people from the Office of the Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS), had been looking at ways to increase mobility and opportunities for students. The merger solution had been on the table for some time.

When Boss learned that it was going to be a reality, however, he immediately began to think about what this would mean for the two libraries’ workflows. Fortunately, there was a long history of collaboration. Deconstructing how the two libraries functioned, rethinking how to manage resources, consolidating budgets, and shifting staff activity were complex challenges but aided by the existing relationship. He advises taking a deep breath and start planning—while recognizing that the original plan is going to change—and maintaining the perspective that it’s an opportunity for improvement. During the process the two libraries saw how interconnected all the disparate components really were. He also emphasized that librarians needed to get involved in the merger beyond the library to influence its future position in the redefined organization.

I asked Boss what advice he would give to librarians who find themselves in a similar situation and what his outlook is for the future of small colleges and their libraries. He believes that while small colleges continue to go through this cycle of change and shake-ups it is important for librarians to continually think about how we can contribute to the health of the institution and academic well-being of the students. As an example, he points to the work the new merged institution is conducting with colleagues across the VSCS to develop a system-wide infrastructure for the use of Open Educational Resources. He acknowledges that while the factors that lead to mergers and closures are beyond the control of any one individual or unit, librarians must work with their respective communities to achieve positive outcomes.

SHAKEOUT AHEAD

Excepting highly selective institutions with large endowments and high U.S. News & World Report rankings, the majority of colleges and universities, small or otherwise, should take nothing for granted when it comes to survival. All the indicators point to a prolonged period of increased competition for fewer students; declining or flat government funding; alternate, nontraditional paths to degrees and certifications; and a generation of high school students who may decide that vocational education with a more secure career outlook is a superior choice to a liberal education with its associated debt and no guarantee of college-degree-worthy employment. Small college academic librarians in particular, and especially those in the Northeast region, should consider their operations at risk. Savvy library leaders are no doubt planning for any contingency and devising strategies to contribute to their institution’s survival plan. Boss's story—and others that will emerge as more small colleges merge or are shuttered—are good examples of how to survive a difficult situation while maintaining library services to minimize disruptions to students who are most vulnerable to distress. On a positive note, small colleges are waking up to the challenges they face and exploring new ways to cooperate with nontraditional approaches. For example, creating more shared online courses so that students from cooperating institutions can access subjects no longer viable for a single institution. No one wants to see any college fail. The fallout can be devastating for students, faculty, staff, and alumni. The loss of an academic library and its unique collection has ramifications far beyond the simple permanent closing of the doors. Let us hope that any future loss is mitigated by thoughtful action today.

Author Image
Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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