one of the best reporters in the country
on higher education. Working for the Detroit Free Press, he’s spent years investigating stories at major research universities like Michigan State.
This year, with the help of the Spencer Education Fellowship at Columbia University
he’s turning his eye toward much smaller institutions, looking at small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest
— both their precarious futures and how much they matter to their hometowns.
These are, of course, a very different world than the giant public research universities he often covers. Michigan State enrolls 39,000 undergrads; Jesse’s just published a smart look
at the finances of tiny Albion College, which has 1,500 students — meaning it will take roughly 25 years to graduate the same number of undergrads that will get Michigan State degrees just this spring.
The first three stories from the project are out this month:
I asked Jesse what jumped out to him during the reporting. He pointed to two things that these colleges must do to survive:
Get buy-in from the whole campus on their strategy. “Everyone from the English professor to the food-service workers. They all matter and if they’re not interested in attracting and retaining students, it just doesn’t work.”
Have enough money and gumption to take some risks.That requires money and the places with more of an endowment cushion — even small by national standards — have an advantage. “You can try something and if it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world,” Jesse said. But they’re going to need to find more creative playbooks than just turning to deep tuition discounts. That approach has run its course.
But why should the rest of us worry about the plight of small private colleges that many have never heard of?
If we care about life in rural America, we have to care, Jesse told me. Thinking about these as private colleges is missing the point.
“While it’s not a quote-unquote public school,” he said, “in a lot of these places it’s actually working as a public school in so many ways.”
These are places for gathering, for arts, for sports. “If you yank them out, it’s going to devastate these towns,” Jesse said. “If Albion College closes, then the town of Albion is going to take a punch — but even more so, the state of Michigan is going to take a punch.”