Robert Muller/Ursuline College

Some experts predicted the economic hit the coronavirus continues to level would shutter small colleges across the country.

While that hasn’t happened in sweeping degrees, early data shows undergraduate enrollment at private, nonprofit four-year institutions reportedly is down 2% nationwide this fall compared with 2019. That’s slightly worse than public universities, which have seen a 1.4% decline.

The pandemic has laid bare challenges that tuition-dependent private colleges in Northeast Ohio and their peers across the country already were facing, forcing many to think about new income streams and other cost-cutting measures as they navigate the future.

A big reality of the present is that small colleges are continuing to deal with a dwindling amount of local first-time freshmen to recruit.

Roughly 137,100 students graduated from Ohio’s high schools in 2011, according to data compiled by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. The group estimates that number will continue to decline, eventually dropping to about 109,600 graduates by 2032.

That makes even more vital the students — and their tuition dollars — who ultimately do choose to stay and enroll at one of these regional institutions, especially in the current landscape.

“I think that’s clearly one of the areas where we see smaller colleges really being impacted, because the sentiment that we all have is what we do best has been taken from us,” Ashland University president Carlos Campo said.

Six years after Moody’s gave Ashland University a junk bond rating, this past spring brought what Campo said were COVID-induced salary cuts and a reduction in hours for many faculty and staff. He added that money from the CARES Act and donations have helped to ease the hit the school took from lost auxiliary fees after the pivot to online learning. Room and board can be an important additional income stream for small campuses.

The university also “sunset” several offerings in July, working to phase out undergrad programs in areas such as geology and economics. Ashland’s faculty senate president, Dan McDonald, said the way administrators communicated decisions surrounding that process and a “breach of trust” helped trigger a no-confidence vote in Campo earlier this year.

“The faculty were convinced, and remain convinced, by all the data that there really is no money to be saved in sunsetting those programs,” he said. “All of those were revenue-generating programs.”

But Campo said the days of colleges having a restaurant-style menu of program options probably doesn’t make sense.

“I think one of the things that many schools like Ashland are realizing is that you have to be great at what you’re great at,” he said.

“I don’t know how many schools can afford to have a four-year German language program long-term.”

Other schools in the region are making similar moves. Over the past few years, Ursuline College in Pepper Pike has “braided” some separate programs together, such as history and political science, officials said.

Total enrollment rose 5.3% this fall compared with the like period in 2019. The impact of either an uptick or a downturn can be amplified on a campus’ bottom line when its population is small, though Ursuline’s president, Sister Christine De Vinne, said there is one benefit of having just roughly 1,100 students on-campus in the time of a pandemic.

“Our faculty can track each student, and if they’re having difficulty, we know it almost instantaneously,” De Vinne said.

Nearly half of first-time students at Ursuline receive a Pell Grant, according to figures compiled by Edmit, a service that aims to help families navigate the financial aid process. That’s higher than Ashland’s reported rate of 35%, the national average at 31%, or John Carroll University’s 20%.

De Vinne also pointed to the strength of the college’s nursing offerings, saying that about half of the undergraduate students are enrolled in that program. She added that an accelerated nursing program for those who already have a bachelor’s degree is doing well.

Expanding health programs is an option leaders at John Carroll are looking at for growth as well. President Michael Johnson highlighted the University Heights campus’ proximity to the “medical mecca” of the Cleveland Clinic.

Ultimately, though, these colleges’ biggest incentive may just be to do what it takes to increase net tuition and fee revenue by enrolling more people. A recent Moody’s sector outlook found that nearly 75% of private institutions surveyed are anticipating net tuition revenue to fall as enrollment declines and tuition discount rates increase.

The report said private campuses “are also facing fierce competition from lower-priced public alternatives as student preferences shift amid the pandemic.”

At John Carroll, where total full-time equivalent enrollment dropped 5.75% from the previous fall, the university is doubling down on marketing efforts, Johnson said.

“Those who know John Carroll love John Carroll, but not enough people know John Carroll,” he said.

He said the university is spending “significantly” more money on the push, zeroing in on both reputational and digital marketing campaigns. That includes highlighting success stories of alumni, too, drawing on a strong base that has alum chapters in about 20 cities nationwide.

Johnson said alumni members of the college’s board of trustees pledged to double their personal contributions this year. The board collectively allowed a one-time dip into its endowment, valued at $228.7 million as of June 30, to help with pandemic-related expenses.

“We have never been worried about the longevity of the university because we’re in a stronger position than other institutions,” Johnson said. “But we are dealing with a lot of historical problems that other institutions also have.”

Rick Staisloff, founder and senior partner at college consulting firm RPK Group, agrees that the challenges schools now face existed prior to this year.

“Institutions are really waking up to this idea that they’re not going to be able to just sort of wait out the impacts from COVID,” he said. “They’re going to have to start looking at some more significant kinds of changes in the years ahead.”

He expects some of the moves may include things like aligning programming to what students really want, creating more cost-effective delivery, or regional colleges strengthening consortial relationships to streamline offerings or administrative tasks.

In a recent plea to congressional leaders for more federal help, the American Council on Education’s president wrote that additional furloughs and layoffs are planned at universities of all sizes nationwide. The letter pointed out that many institutions are the largest employer in their communities, something that’s especially true for small colleges in more rural locales.

Earlier this month, New York State’s Ithaca College announced it would slash about 130 faculty jobs because of enrollment drops.

“For the first time, colleges aren’t going to be able to play around the edges to make the revenue and expense equation work,” Staisloff said. “It’s going to impact not just staff positions, but, I project, increasingly faculty positions.”

He forecasts any big shifts will see a slow rollout, but some could begin next fall.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.