Albion College (Chuck Taylor via Flickr)

The Midwest’s Fragile Colleges

David Jesse’s 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.”

— Scott Smallwood

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When You Can’t Stop a Student in the Hall

The Gulfport High School guidance counselor had a well-honed routine for getting students to fill out their federal application for financial aid. It included stopping people in the halls, in the cafeteria, anywhere she found them, and saying: “You have to fill out the FAFSA. C’mon, come (to my office) and let’s make an appointment.”

But, like many things in the pandemic, her routine’s been disrupted, Molly Minta reported for our partner Mississippi Today. And the data reflect that.

Drops in FAFSA completion rates are prompting concerns across the country about how the pandemic is threatening college access and widening divides. Through Feb. 5, there’s been a 9-percent drop in FAFSA completions compared with the same time a year ago, according to the National College Attainment Network. At high-minority high schools, the drop is 15 percent.

In Mississippi, about 18 percent fewer high-school students have filled out their FAFSA this year. Completed applications are down in urban, suburban, and rural school districts, Molly reported, but the decline is worse in schools with higher populations of working-class students and students of color.

Counselors and nonprofit groups are doubling down on efforts to get completion rates up, Molly reported, through social media, emails, texts, Facetime, virtual workshops, and a Zoom room manned with volunteers.

“We are in a different place in education than we’ve ever been,” Lesian Davis, the director of counseling services for the Jackson Public School District, told Molly. “Not only students but their parents, they are afraid. We want them to understand that they can keep moving.”

+ Elsewhere, Amy Morona reports on what counselors in Northeast Ohio are doing to confront the drop in FAFSA completion rates there.


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