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Small schools struggling to survive

Lack of cooperation harms small Appalachian colleges and universities
University Business, June 2016

Alice L. Brown doesn’t pull punches when discussing the problems of leadership at the small schools that constitute the Appalachian College Association. Some, she says, are barely surviving and their leaders seem reluctant to take the steps necessary to change course.

Brown served 15 years as president of the Appalachian College Association, a nonprofit consortium of 35 private, four-year liberal arts institutions spread across the central Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Collectively these schools serve over 54,000 students, but Brown says they tend to operate as individual entities—to their detriment.

“The presidents don’t want their institutions to really work closely with other institutions, because they’d have to give up something to gain something,” she says.

Now a principal at AWB & Associates, a higher education consultancy, Brown continues to work with small colleges to raise money and implement new approaches to achieving financial stability.

Tell us how the Appalachian College Association began and what its responsibilities continue to be.

It began at The Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, and was intended to bring faculty from small mountain colleges to the university to conduct independent research, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

From there, it grew to working with faculty and letting them go to any number of colleges and universities in the region. Then we started working with students and letting them do summer research with faculty or travel abroad. We had lots of opportunities for students—summer service programs and so on. We also worked with the academic deans in identifying target areas for helping the students and faculty.

We reached the point where the foundations that supported us began to say, “This is great. You’ve got the faculty working together and you’ve got the students involved. But we want to see if there’s a real institutional commitment here.”

What I learned is that faculty will collaborate and students will collaborate—and be happy to do so—but presidents see themselves as presidents of independent colleges and they intend to stay that way. They didn’t want to collaborate.

Why were they reluctant to collaborate?

A major problem seemed to be denominations. If I said anything about merging or getting together with somebody, they’d say, “Well, we can’t merge with that school because it’s Methodist and we’re Baptist.” It seems a little foolish to me to have three colleges, each with 600 students, and have it duplicating all kinds of services when—if religion is the one thing that’s a problem—they could have a separate religious service for the different denominations.

They don’t want to talk about merging because they are afraid of having to give up something, so they wait until they are on the verge of dying and then they start talking to schools about a merger—when they are so frail that nobody wants them. I’ve seen that in many cases.

I hadn’t realized the religious aspect was so powerful in that region that it would be a factor in not cooperating.

It’s amazing. And some of the best presidents that I’ve seen have not been able to work in this kind of environment where religion takes precedence over a lot of things. It results in concerns about trust in working with outside agencies. But who would have thought that Methodists and Baptists couldn’t work together to educate students in Appalachia?

The central Appalachian region has a unique character—the students have different needs and different goals.

They come from a different culture. Even if you speak with students from Appalachia who end up at Princeton or somewhere, they’ll talk about how they are uncomfortable in that culture because nobody else really understands what it means to have to go home in the summer and work at your father’s diner when most of the kids are going to Europe for their break.

The culture is very family oriented. One of the biggest problems these schools have is that if grandma gets sick, the student is very likely to leave school and their education because it was important to go home and take care of her.

One person told me that these students don’t have a lot of self-esteem, and that is a big issue. He said that when you hire somebody from Appalachia, you have to be careful how you criticize them, because the first time you tell them they did something wrong, they think, “I knew I couldn’t do this job.”

It’s a culture that doesn’t give the kids a lot of experiences in the outside world. They come from a closed culture and they can continue to get that at a small college.

That’s what I think is so valuable about these schools. If one of these kids gets into a big university they are likely to struggle and possibly even leave. But if they are in one of these colleges and they talk about leaving, the faculty and the other students come around them to offer support. The schools generally understand these students in a way that big universities don’t. They understand that some students need special attention, but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb.

You once asked a college president, “What can the ACA do for you?” He replied, “Make us more aware of our obligations to Appalachia.” What did he mean?

Well, he said, “We send students to South America and Central America to do service projects. But there’s a world of service projects we could do right here in Tennessee.” And certainly in some of the Appalachian states there are all kinds of needs.

These regions are often referred to as the Third-World country in the United States. So you can just imagine the kind of poverty I’ve seen. What we’re trying to do is help kids not get away from that, but also understand there is another world out there.

The association once did a study of graduates five, 15 and 25 years out of our schools. We found that although most of the students at these colleges are from Appalachia, the students that came from outside were more likely to stay in the region than were those who grew up in the region, because they see that the need is really great.

Those schools are a subset of smaller liberal arts colleges in general. Why is it important to keep them open?

Because it’s a subset that knows and understands its students. Most of these schools have less than $50 million in endowment. So, where Princeton has $2.2 million per student in its endowment, the University of the Cumberlands has $1,500 per student in its endowment.

What these schools offer may not necessarily be the latest technology and all the frills. They certainly don’t have swimming pools for every dorm. But they provide a unique kind of personal attention and nurturing. Students that need that form of nurturing need the colleges in that region.

Are there lessons that larger schools can learn from these schools?

I think they have learned from them. A lot of the larger schools have Posse programs and honors programs where they take students who have similar expertise and similar interests and put them collectively in a dorm or some social center where they can relate to each other and nurture each other without feeling that they are out of place.

The big schools have realized the value of a small-school experience, and they’ve tried to create that within the framework of the big schools. What can the little schools learn from the big schools? They can learn that they have to stay on top of technology and on top of the current student population and provide courses not just for students coming out of high school, but for students who have been out of high school for 10 years and are now parents.

What’s next for you?

My next project will be trying to look at trustees at these schools. When I was working at the Appalachian College Association, I couldn’t get past the presidents. Presidents seem to be happy to keep their trustees behind closed doors and the trustees seem happy to stay there. I want to find out how those trustees have helped that school become stronger and how they have maybe hindered it in some way.

Having served on a couple of boards, I know the biggest problem is that they really don’t pay a lot of attention to what is going on. They don’t ask questions. They get a report from the president, who tells them what he wants them to know, and then they go to a nice dinner.

But I’m not sure many trustees at these schools really take it upon themselves to worry about whether the school is getting better.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.

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