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Extreme Makeover: Small College Edition

The Kesler Student Activities Center at Taylor University.
The Kesler Student Activities Center at Taylor University.

While the closing of Sweet Briar College was being contested in Bedford County (Va.) Circuit Court — an April 14 hearing gave some life to opponents of the move — another small college was throwing in the towel. On April 11, Tennessee Temple University announced it would dissolve as of May 1 and merge with Piedmont International University, a private Christian college in Winston-Salem, N.C. The recent list of closings, including Lebanon College and Mid-Continent University, comprises only a small handful out of 1,650 private, nonprofit colleges still in operation, but nonetheless is a sobering reminder that the effects of the recession linger on — and may, in fact, represent a permanent change to the collegiate landscape.

Author Oliver Snider is the director of business development for the design-build firm Stanmar Inc.Author Oliver Snider is the director of business development for the design-build firm Stanmar Inc.If the existential dread of 2008 has eased on most campuses, many institutions remain wary of making large capital investments in the face of tightening fundraising opportunities and enrollments. Certainly the need for rigorous campus planning has grown more acute; while substantial improvements to student life facilities can help schools remain competitive, small colleges can’t embark on these projects without first revisiting their mission statements and thinking about what makes them special and distinct in a market suddenly filled with technical school and online learning opportunities.

A group of Sweet Briar faculty members and alumni have proposed, as an alternative to closure, shifting the school’s focus to accelerated STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields programs in concert with its liberal arts program. The plan’s proponents have estimated that putting this in place would require a $62 million starting investment and an initial class of 120 students.

There is precedent for such a move: A client of ours, Taylor University, one of the country’s oldest evangelical Christian colleges, was saddled with an under-enrolled and debt-ridden campus as the recession took hold. The school closed that campus in 2009 and the following year embarked on a $41.1 million, 137,000-square-foot LEED Gold addition to its Nussbaum Science Center — the Euler Science Complex, which features two wind turbines, a heliostat, green roofing, geothermal heating and cooling, and solar paneling. Alderson Broaddus University was similarly proactive when it faced bankruptcy in the late-2000s, investing heavily in athletics and health sciences programs and facilities, and in the process doubling its enrollment to 1,100 students.

Institutions that go this route are likely to face obstacles both outside (donor fatigue) and inside (institutional paralysis). Those that succeed will be the schools that can successfully articulate the reasons for the change beyond survival. More than ever, with tuition of $47,000 (the annual full tuition at Sweet Briar) and higher, prospective students and their parents are thinking in terms of the return on their investment. Potential donors also need to know that the school’s investment in facilities fits into a larger strategy for future success, not just as a stopgap.

As to which facility projects a school should pursue, it really depends on the financial state of the institution — and a rethinking of priorities is definitely in order. This will likely alter the contours of whatever planning had occurred prior to the recession. It could prompt a major investment in a student recreation center, or a focus on upgrading dormitories in place of a student recreation center. Or, as Taylor University did, it could mean redefining and articulating a new specialty.

This spring’s closings might be the first dominos to fall, as some in education have been predicting for several years now, or they might be failures specific to a particular school’s circumstances. Either way, they should prompt schools, whatever their financial footing, to revisit their campus planning and adjust accordingly to a shifting collegiate landscape.


MORE FROM OLIVER SNIDER: How to Keep Costly 'Scope Creep' at Bay When Building


Oliver Snider (osnider@stanmar-inc.com) is director of business development for Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Mass.-based design-build firm specializing in multipurpose athletic facilities.

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