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When the governor of Tennessee proposed letting students in that state go to community college for free — almost a year before President Barack Obama started pushing the idea nationally — a surprising worry flashed into Kina Mallard’s mind.

“My first reaction was: another curve ball,” she recalled grimly. “Here’s another curve ball for higher education.”

Free community college
Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Credit: Carson-Newman University

Mallard is executive vice president and provost at Carson-Newman University, a Baptist liberal arts school in Jefferson City, Tennessee with about 2,300 students, and the kind of small private, nonprofit higher-education institution already fending off challenges to its continued enrollment — and particularly vulnerable to more.

Competing for students is a very real bottom-line issue for us,” said Mallard.

“It’s difficult to compete with free.”

And it’s getting much, much tougher.

Largely out of sight, and at a time when policymakers hope to increase the proportion of the population with degrees, enrollment is flat or down at U.S. universities and colleges already facing seemingly unending financial woes.

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These institutions enjoyed a seller’s market for more than 20 years, with a steadily increasing supply of high school graduates. But the number quietly peaked in 2011, then declined before leveling off, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education reports. It’s not predicted to edge up again until 2021, and then only slowly.

Meanwhile, the rebounding economy has sucked prospective students out of the classroom and back into the job market. Enrollment declined in the fall for the sixth time in the past seven semesters, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks this.

Free community college
Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Credit: Carson-Newman University

And now universities and colleges — especially small private nonprofit ones have an unexpected new problem: competing with free community college, which the president wants to roll out nationwide. And while the Obama plan so far has no timetable and it is widely considered a longshot to pass the Republican Congress, Tennessee will make community college free this fall, and several other states are considering it.

“You step back 50 feet and these trends do have a potential for adversely affecting some of the nonprofit, not very selective institutions,” said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Or, as Claude Pressnell, Jr., president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, put it: “It’s difficult to compete with free.”

Related: Poorest states cut what experts say could help the most: higher ed

The Obama administration calculates that nine million students would be eligible for free community college under its plan — about two million more than already attend those kinds of schools.

And while half may be students who would not otherwise have gone to college anywhere, said Josh Keniston, research director at the enrollment management firm Eduventures, his team estimates that the other million would be drawn from the pool of prospective applicants to four-year institutions.

“That’s a lot,” Keniston said.

Especially when many of those four-year colleges and universities are already having trouble filling seats.

“The types of schools it’s going to impact are private institutions that are tuition-driven, that are less selective, that are already struggling the most when it comes to enrollment,” including small, historically black, all-women, and religiously affiliated campuses, said Keniston’s colleague Heather O’Leary, Eduventure’s principal analyst for recruitment and retention.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily awareness out there about the number of what I’d call third-tier institutions that are already truly struggling,” O’Leary said. “So this is top of mind for boards, for presidents, for provosts. The last thing I would want to do right now is be a vice president of enrollment management, because it’s the hot seat on campus.”

The bond-rating firm Moody’s projects that enrollment pressure will contribute this year to the weakest revenue growth at nonprofit colleges and universities in a decade.

Many colleges are searching for new ways to bring in students, and working harder to keep them from leaving once they show up — especially in Tennessee, where the prospect of free community college is already being dangled in front of high school seniors who will graduate this spring. Fifty-six thousand students have already applied, nearly three times the goal, Governor Bill Haslam has announced.

Related: Catholic colleges tell poor students: Go somewhere else

“It’s a little harrowing right now,” said Eddie Pawlawski, executive vice president at Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee. “There’s a need for more planning, and more strategic planning, than I think we’ve ever done in higher education.” (The University of Tennessee System has expressed concern that its smaller campuses also could see a freshman enrollment decline.)

After the Tennessee plan was announced, said Mallard, at Carson-Newman, “my second reaction was, how can we take this and turn what could be a negative into a positive? We’re not going to get anywhere fighting against this initiative, so how do we get into the game?”

The university has since announced its own two-year associate’s degree toward which, under the legislation that created free community college in Tennessee, students will be able to receive state financial aid equal to the cost of public community college tuition. That would save them an estimated $4,158 off the $24,200 full-time tuition, according to the university. It’s hiring an admissions counselor to work in the evenings, a time more convenient for prospective students to come in or call. It’s started using the term “concierge service” to define the way it treats students who have problems or questions.

“We’re all having to be more creative,” Mallard said. “It has kicked us in the pants — all of this competition has caused small private colleges that are going to survive to think about these things.”

Carson-Newman is also trying to take advantage of the influx of students who may be drawn to public community colleges by free tuition, hoping to persuade them to transfer to the university as juniors and continue on to bachelor’s degrees. It’s opened an office at nearby Pellissippi State Community College, for example, on whose campus it will start offering some bachelor’s degree programs and a master’s degree in business administration.

“We wanted the students to see the name ‘Carson-Newman’ and recruit them [to transfer] even before they get their associate’s degree,” said Mallard.

Zeroing in on transfer students is a strategy being tried by all kinds of colleges, all over the country — something to which most admit they paid scant attention until the pool of students started drying up.

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Transferring credits from community colleges to four-year institutions in particular has been so complicated that, while 80 percent of students entering community colleges say they plan to do it, only 17 percent of them succeed, according to a study by the public-policy consulting firm HCM Strategists.

“Some schools that don’t have a strong history of transfer have not been particularly welcoming to transfer students,” said Emily Froimson, vice president of programs at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. (The foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

“The discussion is now about increasing transfer,” she said. “And it’s not just from a ‘Let’s help these kids’ perspective, but also a recognition that they’re having trouble filling seats.” Still, she said, “if this forces four-year institutions to build better transfer pathways, it’s a win-win.”

Even before the free community college announcements, public colleges and universities in a few states — including California, Georgia, New Jersey, and North Carolina — had started working to improve the transfer process. In Tennessee, 15 private colleges have now agreed to guarantee admission to community college graduates who complete a particular core of general-education courses.

If free community college happens nationwide, said Ekman, “it’s possible that it would simply drain the base for traditional freshman entry, but it’s also possible that it will encourage what’s happening” in these states, by making it easier for community college graduates to continue on toward bachelor’s degrees at private colleges and universities that need students.

There’s one other way colleges are trying to buffer themselves from the enrollment decline: by discouraging students from dropping out. More than 40 percent of freshmen don’t come back for a second year to the university or college where they started, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

The bad news? That problem is getting worse, not better.

“Retention was never talked about. They didn’t care about retention even five years ago the way they do now,” O’Leary said. “You built it, and they came. Now there isn’t that big backlog.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education here.

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