CHESTNUT HILL - Half a mile from Pine Manor College sits a house on sale for $11.9 million. The leafy drive that leads to the college is lined by similar mansions, estates that might have sent their daughters to Pine Manor decades ago, when it was a two-year finishing school for the wealthy young women of Boston.
Those women do not go to Pine Manor anymore. Fifteen years ago, as enrollment at many women’s schools dwindled, the college assumed a new identity to attract students: It focused almost all its recruiting on low-income women who showed perseverance, if not perfect grades. Give them hefty financial aid and close attention, the thinking went, and they might flourish.
The move transformed Pine Manor into one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse small colleges - 63 percent of its students identify as black, Hispanic, or Native American - and brought in many students who went on to promising careers in law, business, and health. It gave the school a new reason to exist. It earned press and praise.
What it didn’t earn was money.
While focusing on poor students, Pine Manor itself became poor. And it is getting poorer.
Now, at 100 years old, it faces a second identity crisis: Can it maintain the commitment to low-income students and survive?
Battered by the recession, the school’s endowment has shrunk to under $9 million, less than the price tag of the nearby mansion. It recently landed on a government list of colleges in extremely fragile financial health. It has only 300 students this year, a third less than its typical enrollment. Almost all are on financial aid, and three-fourths are on Pell grants, the federal subsidies for families in need.
The students are a tightknit group with a desperate wish to save their school. For many, it is the first place to offer the support they need to succeed. But their tuition money is not enough to keep it running.
So Pine Manor, under a new president, has little choice but to seek revenue elsewhere. That is likely to mean, among other things, raising tuition and recruiting from higher income brackets, an about-face from the past 15 years.
“The strategy has to be bringing in some students who are better able to pay,’’ said Patricia Casey, a consultant from Maguire Associates who is helping the college sketch out a new strategic plan. “This is the pendulum swing: from rich girls to poor girls to ‘Look, we need some kind of balance.’ ’’
Pine Manor has limped along financially for several years, but was hit with a one-two punch last year.
First, almost half the freshman class left. Administrators say those students were not ready for the rigors of college. Classmates put it more bluntly. “They wanted to be spoonfed,’’ said sophomore Vanessa Gomes. “They didn’t want to do the work.’’
Then, not enough new students came in to replace the outgoing group.
Families who might have sent their children to Pine Manor were struggling so mightily in the economic crisis that, for many, tuition was too much of a stretch, even with financial aid.
It did not help that the school did almost no advertising or recruiting last year.
The president at the time, Gloria Nemerowicz, was rarely around. After spending more than a decade transforming Pine Manor, she was ready to make a transition out of her presidency to focus on running Yes We Must, a national coalition of schools with high numbers of Pell grant recipients.
“For the last year, I was traveling and fund-raising,’’ she said. “I really wasn’t managing the campus.’’
When this academic year began, there were only 300 students enrolled, compared with the college’s usual 400-plus. That was not nearly enough to bring in needed revenue.
Those now running Pine Manor have a daunting task ahead.
Alane Shanks, the new president, is a former administrator at two schools that could not be more different from each other: Harvard Medical School and Roxbury Community College. At Harvard, Shanks oversaw an academic overhaul; at Roxbury, a financial and administrative one. She is prepared to do both at Pine Manor, if necessary.
Shanks is considering strategies that could keep Pine Manor alive without requiring it to turn away the low-income women at its heart.
The first step: finding more students to replenish its ranks. Recruiting officers are working overtime.
So are students, who are volunteering as brand ambassadors and promoting the school’s features, hoping to attract students interested in its dance ensemble or the internships it offers in geriatrics and art therapy.
One of the students, Karla Ribeiro, is trying to persuade her younger sister to enroll. “It’s important to me that I was given a chance,’’ she said. “This is a place where people feel a need to give back.’’
Shanks is looking for fresh faces in new places. She hopes to use her community college connections to bring in transfer students, and she is nurturing a partnership with a private company that recruits international students who do not speak fluent English. These women fit the school’s mission, she said: Like current students at Pine Manor, they have overcome obstacles.
Ultimately, Shanks said, the school needs to expand its recruiting to students of higher means. And it cannot concentrate too heavily on those who, through no fault of their own, may be unprepared for higher education.
“I totally commend the last administration for achieving the diversity it did in such a short amount of time,’’ Shanks said. “But I think the focus got narrower and narrower on students who were the first in their families to attend college, to the point that we were bringing in a lot of students who weren’t ready. They might have made it for one semester, but they weren’t going to make it all the way.’’
The school, she added, cannot help those who need full financial aid without recruiting some who do not.
So next year, tuition - low, at $22,042, compared with rates at most New England colleges - may go up. “I’m not going to say it won’t,’’ Shanks said.
And some of Pine Manor’s spots will go to wealthier students, provided the school can bring them in: “We are going to broaden our net.’’
These are especially sensitive decisions for Shanks, who is herself a first-generation college student. Her parents went bankrupt when she was young. For her, higher education meant moving out of the working poor.
Pine Manor should still stand for that opportunity, she said: “We’re not going to give up that designation lightly.’’
But, she said, “We also want to be here for another 100 years.’’