The Antioch College campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The college, which shut down for three years and reopened, offers lessons to other small institutions now facing similar enrollment and financial problems. Credit: Meg Vogel for The Hechinger Report

YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio — The summer gathering of alumni at Antioch College was not your conventional reunion.

Sure, there was the enthusiasm of returning classmates and the babble of nostalgic conversation over dinner in a big white tent erected on the campus quad.

Then the president convened a town hall-style meeting to discuss the state of the college.

At a typical reunion, “What you’d usually hear now is a rundown of statistics that underscore all the wonderful accomplishments we’ve made,” the president, Tom Manley, began.

But very little about Antioch is typical.

Instead, Manley proceeded to share the news that the college was short of its enrollment goals. It was too heavily dependent on alumni contributions for its operating budget. It had borrowed against its endowment to refurbish the campus.

Antioch is, in fact, doing surprisingly well just by still being open, considering it was revived by these alumni after being shut down in 2008 under a previous board of trustees that had diverted many of its assets into a chain of satellite graduate campuses.

Now its near-death experience has become a textbook case for the many other small colleges that are following it into similar financial and enrollment straits.

More than half of colleges report that their enrollment is flat or down.

Antioch provides a cautionary tale about the risks of chasing new sources of income too hastily. It attests to the importance for these colleges in a crowded marketplace of emphasizing what makes them unique. It proves the value of building loyalty among alumni.

And it shows that being frank about problems — as Manley was at the reunion — can help forestall them before they’ve grown too big to fix.

In fact, many financially shaky small colleges are doing the opposite of these things.

Related: Universities and colleges struggle to stem big drops in enrollment

Along with addressing the need to financially diversify, economies like these offer yet another lesson other colleges are gradually coming to understand, said Vicki Baker, a professor of economics and management at Albion College who has studied Antioch: “More and more institutions are realizing and appreciating — particularly small colleges — that we are a business.”

In that respect, said Baker, Antioch’s struggles alone provide a critical lesson. “It’s an important gut check for us that, oh, look, higher education institutions aren’t immune” from existential fiscal pressures.

Like any business, colleges need to sell themselves — in their case to a shrinking supply of prospective students. The number of American 18-year-olds is down, and an improving economy has drawn older students back into the workforce. On top of all their other problems, colleges are competing for 2.4 million fewer students than there were five years ago. (Antioch enrolled only 45 new students last fall, compared to a goal of 80; its total enrollment now is 115, down from a 1960s peak of 2,000 and a post-reopening high of 266 in 2015.)

Related: Is the college degree outdated?

Many schools are adding academic offerings they think will attract applicants. Thirty-seven percent of colleges have added or changed their academic programs to boost enrollment, that NACUBO survey found.

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“When you cease to exist, you have to have some tough conversations about who you are and how you want to be seen.”

Observers contend that this has blurred what makes each college special or distinctive.

“At the same time you’re saying, ‘Look at how unique we are,’ you’re saying, ‘Notice how we’re as good as they are,’ ” said Michael McPherson, former president of Macalester College and an economist who studies the economics of education. “ ‘We match them point for point, and we’re really different.’ What’s your message here?”

The strongest moral of the Antioch story? Standing out trumps blending in.

“It’s all about differentiating your brand,” said Baker. “If I’m looking at a college with the same curriculum at a higher price, why would I want to pay for it?” Yet “institutions in search of survival are kind of doing the opposite. They’re trying to be all things to all people.”

Even Antioch did this, said McPherson. “They confused the hell out of their brand when they created Antioch University and all of these separate identities.”

But it recovered, and refocused on its singular identity. “They’ve done that brilliantly,” said Baker. “They’re playing it perfectly.” That’s because, “When you cease to exist, you have to have some tough conversations about who you are and how you want to be seen.”

Bates characterized Antioch’s distinctiveness with an anecdote from his own time here.

When a professor from an Ivy League school came to teach at the college, “He had his first class and told the students what he was going to be teaching them, and when he got done he asked if there were questions. And a woman in the back of the class who had her feet up on the desk and was a bit of a hippy raised her hand, and he called on her, and she said, ‘What qualifies you to teach this course?’”

The story speaks to Antioch’s long legacy of involving students in their own educations and encouraging them to challenge authority.

“When you’re in a crowded and competitive market the question always is, from a business standpoint, how do you stand out? What is the value proposition?” Bates said.

“We don’t tend to talk about higher education in those terms,” he said. “But that’s the reality. You’re running a business and you’re asking people to spend a whole lot of money, and you’re asking parents to spend a whole lot of money. What [other] small liberal arts colleges can learn is to find your core and to focus on your core identity.”

Catherine Jordan, a former nonprofit executive and an Antioch alumna (class of ’72) who helped reopen the college. She says the previous trustees expanded into graduate education too quickly in what has become a cautionary tale for other schools. Credit: Meg Vogel for The Hechinger Report

Instead, said Baker, other colleges “have been a little too comfortable in thinking that the right students will find them, and they haven’t been thoughtful enough about their branding and how they differentiate themselves.”

Related: The new minority on campus? Men

Even those that try may not succeed. As a college president, McPherson said, he learned that “everybody thinks the key is to be unique. And that’s definitely right — if you have an honestly defensible distinction. It’s not very hard to come up with a press release. The question is, are you walking the talk?”

Antioch walks the talk, McPherson said. It “can cash the check on this.”

And cashing checks, it does. That’s because alumni value the legitimacy of Antioch’s uniqueness, they said, and are willing to invest in it.

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“Just make sure you have dedicated, rich alumni,” Barbara Slaner Winslow, a historian, 1968 Antioch grad and chair of the board of trustees, said, only half joking.

“When you look at folks who are alumni, the good works they have done, what this college is doing — who doesn’t want to save that?” said Craig Johnson, a member of the Class of ’91 who has worked at two universities since graduating from Antioch in 1991. What other colleges could learn, he said, “is that goodwill goes a long way.”

Yet alumni loyalty is being tested elsewhere by high costs and by the fact that more than half of students who earn bachelor’s degrees today transfer at least once, attending more than one institution over the course of their educations, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“It’s hard to expect the same level of loyalty. It’s a big challenge,” said McPherson, who also co-authored the book “Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education.”

”When you look at folks who are alumni, the good works they have done, what this college is doing — who doesn’t want to save that?”

Only 20 percent of alumni feel strongly emotionally attached to the universities or colleges they attended, a Gallup poll found. Only one in five has given money in the last 12 months.

“If you didn’t have a supported, highly engaged student experience, you don’t become an engaged alum later,” said Brandon Busteed, Gallup’s executive director for education polling. “There is no such thing as alumni engagement, only student engagement that lasts a lifetime.”

The most devoted alumni in the Gallup survey said they had professors who cared about them as people and “encouraged [their] hopes and dreams.”

Related: As graduates obsess about jobs, colleges cut spending on career services

Angel Nalubega, a senior from New Jersey, who at other colleges saw large lecture classes and less interaction between students and faculty than she says she has found at Antioch. Credit: Meg Vogel for The Hechinger Report

You can’t impose that on a campus culture, or hire a consultant to create it, said Angel Nalubega, a senior from New Jersey, who at other colleges saw large lecture classes and less interaction between students and faculty than she said she found at Antioch.

“Students want to go to a college where they can feel heard, where they can grow into themselves,” Nalubega said. “Colleges can say, ‘Oh, we have shiny new buildings,’ but if they don’t have professors who will text you when you’re not in class, then they’re at a deficit and their students are at a deficit.”

That’s what sold Antioch student Marcell Vanarsdale on the college, too. “The relationship [with faculty] doesn’t end in the classrooms. It’s in the coffee shops, it’s passing them on the bike paths,” said Vanarsdale, a senior from Chicago. “Who we are, what is our identity — it’s nothing you can force. It has to be real.”

All of these things interconnect, said Baker. Being unique attracts students and transforms them into committed alumni. Being honest keeps them faithful.

But, for other colleges, addressing their challenges “doesn’t involve copying Antioch,” said Manley. “It involves considering who you are and what you bring to the world.”

That may have come easier here.

Colleges and universities in general “tend not to be built for that, when you have layers of culture and hundreds of years of tradition behind you,” Manley said.

At Antioch, said Alana Guth, a senior psychology major from Michigan, “We’ve already closed. So what do we have to lose?”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in collaboration with the Educate podcast. Sign up here for our higher education newsletter.

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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