As Pandemic Hits Colleges' Finances, Small Town May Be Affected Too
Has been devastating college finances and some of them are even on the brink of closing. What does that mean for college towns? Frank Morris of member Station has this look. Att one rural college community. Lots of towns across rule. America are in steep decline, but tiny Sterling Kansas is an island of vitality. Ah, pleasant Tuesday evening, a local gospel quintet entertains folks spread out on lawn chairs in a large tidal park. This town is anchored by Sterling College, a private evangelical Christian school, founded in 18 87. College senior Cuyler calmly calls it one big partnership. There's just so much overlap in community supports the college to college supports the community. You know, you just see how everything's intertwined. This remote town of 2200 boasts good schools, white collar jobs and a healthy downtown. College students, faculty and staff breathed life into the place, same as they do for hundreds of other little college towns across the country. But students left here in March and they haven't come back. Criminal justice Professor Mark Tremain is worried. I think the bottom line is we've got to get students back to campus. If we're going to survive. I think we have to accept whatever the risks are and do it. Starting college depends on about 500 students paying up to $26,000 a year tuition and another eight or nine grand for room and board. Sterling College President Scott Rich says the school like many others, scrapes by from year to year. We're always dependent upon enrollment always depended upon that next year, always dependent upon persistence or retention. We have to get students to come back. And we're dealing with a lot of challenges. Most schools now face daunting decisions. Scott Carlson follows the rolling crisis for the Chronicle of Higher Education. I think some of the people I know are looking at hundreds of college is going out of business within the next several years if this pandemic continues, and if the economic devastation associated with it continues, small liberal arts colleges have been shaky. For years, Enrollments have slumped down mints have been tapped. Many schools have piled on debt in a building fueled by competition for students. Most offer classes online, but online classes don't pay the bills. Most small schools survived by providing an expensive high touch in person College experience, and Carlson says the pandemic is shredding that business model. These colleges are Unique little entities all on their own, and each one of them provides a unique spin on higher education At Sterling College. The foundation is Christianity, but football is came. Workers here putting the final touches on a big Jim classroom in office complex. Many students enroll here for the chance to play college sports. It's a major selling point. About 1/4 of the students attending in person are on the football team. That's right 1/4 but sporting events could be major vectors for disease. And Jed Miller, who's finishing his degree it's early online next year, says That's another vulnerability. If Cove it defeats the athletics season this year. It will probably defeat a lot of small colleges and as a result heard a lot of small towns. Badly. While small college towns tend to be some of the healthiest communities in remote rural areas, the colleges those towns depend on now pose a physical danger to residence. Christina Darn hours a family practice doctor in sterling, the college probably is the most dangerous. Element for us in terms of covert. Shit. Potentially brings back students from all over the US who have variable levels of exposure across the country. Small colleges and college towns faced the same dilemma over opening, but not everyone thinks that's all bad. Richard Price at the Clayton Christians and Institute argues that the pandemic will lead to better online classes and more equitable schools. The traditional model. It was originally for the landed elite. And it wasn't sure all genders. It wasn't for all races, and that is slowly getting phased out. Along with some older business models that aren't fitting well, and price thinks many small colleges will adapt. Lots of them have cheated death before. There's no question the pandemic will close a number of American colleges and unravel small college towns along the way for NPR news. I'm Frank Morris.