NEW LONDON, N.H. — Colby-Sawyer College has all the hallmarks of a classic New England liberal arts college — the rural setting, the small classes, and quaint traditions like Mountain Day, when students and professors hike side-by-side up Mount Kearsarge.
What you won’t find on this campus, as of next year, are two majors once considered cornerstones of a liberal arts education: English and philosophy.
The small private college announced last month that it was scrapping those programs, laying off 18 people, and cutting the hours of a dozen more to fill a $2.6 million budget gap.
As middle-class families struggle, so do small schools that have traditionally drawn from a regional, middle-class pool of students. They face a set of problems you don’t see on the campus tour: mounting debt, dwindling enrollment, and virtually no endowment.
Many students seek technical skills that will guarantee them a job, rather than a well-rounded liberal arts foundation. Small four-year colleges have to work harder to convince families they are worth the $50,000 tuition most schools charge.
Some, like Marion Court College in Swampscott, have closed. Others have merged. Still others, like Colby-Sawyer, are trying to survive by reinventing themselves, but with that reinvention has come soul-searching about what it means to be a liberal arts institution, and whether such places have a future.
Colby-Sawyer’s new president, Sue Stuebner, is still passionate about producing graduates who can write, read, think, and analyze, but she said the English and philosophy majors just aren’t popular anymore.
“If we try to do it all we’re not going to do it all well,” Stuebner said in an interview in her office in the school’s central brick building.
Instead, she has a two-pronged plan: narrow the school’s focus to its most successful programs, like nursing, business, and sports management, and market them aggressively. She hired a consulting firm to recruit students and determine how much financial aid to award each to increase their likelihood of attending. So far, it’s working.
“I think we have to focus on the things we can control,” she said.
News of the impending cuts has elicited mixed reactions from students at the school, which has about 1,100 students. Some spent time in classes discussing the cuts, which also include majors in accounting, health promotion, and health care management. Others have said they are disheartened. There are 18 English majors and no philosophy majors, the school said.
On Monday, as Stuebner outlined her success strategy, prospective students gathered outside her office for a tour of the 200-acre campus. They crunched over frozen snow as the guide showed off amenities and described programs you won’t find at most larger public schools, many of which cost half the price.
Colby-Sawyer’s five-story library is an architectural wonder, made from two renovated barns where light illuminates exposed beams and potted plants make the space feel alive.
Outside, the tour guide unlocked the door to a sugar shack that becomes the classroom for a two-credit course on sugaring.
High school senior Alexandra Doliber of Wolfeboro, who was on the tour with her mother, Jennifer Guldner, loved the library. She also liked the idea that professors would know her name.
Doliber, who already has been accepted to Colby-Sawyer, would have to pay $40,000 a year after financial aid. Plymouth State, which has also offered her admission, would cost around $10,500 annually. The private school price tag worries her mother.
“It’s a huge expense, and it’s kind of scary,” she said.
But the expense at small private colleges wasn’t always so huge. The cost has risen faster than the income of the middle-class families who have traditionally attended them, and students are increasingly wary of taking on debt.
Many of the problems small schools face are a result of the 2008 economic recession.
Wealthy small privates like Williams and Amherst saw their endowments tank overnight, but the effect was delayed for schools like Colby-Sawyer that rely on tuition revenue rather than investments.
“We really felt the middle-class hit a few years delayed,” said Thomas Galligan, president of Colby-Sawyer from 2006 until last year. “That hit us hard.”
Galligan, now dean of the Louisiana State University Law Center, called his tenure a roller coaster ride. Without a large endowment, the admissions office agonizes every year over whether the school will enroll enough students to balance the budget. A difference of as few as 50 can spell trouble.
The main way Colby-Sawyer attracts students is by offering sizable aid packages — as much as 67 percent off the $54,000 tuition. But that requires a balancing act, because the school so sorely needs revenue.
Adding to the pressure, these schools have found themselves increasingly locked in an amenities arms race. Students want the latest technology, the best professors, the most modern gymnasium, and gourmet food, and as much as schools are stretched thin, they lose students if they don’t keep up.
Some have criticized Colby-Sawyer’s president for supporting a new $7.4 million performing arts center at a time of staff layoffs. But, she says, it’s important to stay modern, and the building was funded almost entirely by donations for that project.
Just as these schools didn’t get into trouble overnight, it will take years for them to recover, experts say.
Ed MacKay, director of the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission, said their fate is very much tied to the struggles of public schools. As state legislatures cut funding to public colleges, those schools have begun to aggressively recruit the students who traditionally attended the privates.
In addition, the number of high school graduates is expected to drop annually between now and 2023, according to a report released last month by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
MacKay also sees the fate of small colleges as an economic issue. Colby-Sawyer, which was founded in 1837, is integral to the economy of New London.
“These institutions are not appreciated enough for what they bring to their respective communities, and the loss of an institution to a small community can be devastating,” he said.
Colby-Sawyer alumna Mechilia Salazar looks back fondly on her time in New London. She graduated in 2000 with a degree in early childhood development and credits the school with teaching her how to pivot, when she switched majors and later when she changed careers.
Over the years she’s realized it was more than just her classes that made college special.
She still remembers “Marriott” Mike, who ran the cafeteria, and his wife, who taught water aerobics. She recalled how the school helped her start an after-school program for local elementary school students.
“The small intimate feel, it felt like one big family,’’ she said. “You can’t really hide on a campus, everybody eventually gets to know each other.”