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At region’s smallest colleges, poor graduation rates threaten their financial stability

The  final commencement ceremony at Mount Ida College last May.
The final commencement ceremony at Mount Ida College last May.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File)

As financial problems trigger the deaths of small private colleges across New England, the schools have been mourned as lost hallmarks of the region. But a closer look at their success in educating students creates a more complicated picture.

At Newbury College, which will close this spring, only about a third of students graduated within six years of starting their degrees. At Green Mountain College in Vermont, which will also shut its doors, the percentage is roughly the same.

At Mount Ida College, which closed last year, just 67 percent of freshmen returned as sophomores, and only 40 percent graduated within six years, according to data the federal government collected about colleges.

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Many of the region’s other small private colleges — even those not contemplating closure — are struggling with low graduation rates. Among the 86 smallest private, four-year colleges in New England, 42 have a six-year graduation rate under 60 percent, the national average for four-year schools.

Milton Hall at Newbury College in Brookline.
Milton Hall at Newbury College in Brookline. (Michael Swensen for the Boston Globe)

Those success measures offer a behind-the-scenes peek at the real performance of these schools, beyond glossy brochures and leafy campuses. Low-income and first-generation students, who are increasingly turning to small private colleges, are especially vulnerable to leaving campus without a diploma but still saddled with debt.

“A lot of schools are in fear of this, that if this information were known, then things are going to go from bad to worse and perhaps rightfully so,” said Richard Gaumer, a former small-college CFO who now works as a consultant.

Gaumer said parents and students are becoming more savvy consumers and have begun to ask schools for that type of information. Still, many students are won over by gleaming facilities or what can look like a large scholarship.

In theory, small private colleges offer a valuable alternative to large state schools. Small class sizes, mentoring by professors and staff, and a strong liberal arts base can help students in later life. But only if they graduate.

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“Some of these small schools that aren’t as financially prepared for the longer haul, they’re running slower, and the wolf is going to catch them, and it’s probably OK that some not make it,” Gaumer said.

Increasingly, small colleges are falling victim to changing demographics. There are fewer college-going students, and the ones who are applying increasingly cannot afford expensive tuition. While many small schools have found niches or ways to stay viable, the ones with especially precarious finances are in trouble.

Desperate to fill their slots, some schools lower their admissions criteria and waive standardized testing requirements. But they often lack the resources to bring sometimes ill-prepared students up to speed.

Like many of his counterparts, Joseph Chillo, the president of Newbury College, argues that small private schools play an important role in educating an underserved population with personalized attention. Those students lack the grades to get into elite colleges but don’t want to get lost at a large public university, he said. About 60 percent of students at Newbury College are very low-income, and many are the first in their family to attend college.

But the schools come at a steep price. Newbury costs $36,000 before room and board. To entice students, colleges often offer big scholarships, but students also take out loans.

In somewhat of a Catch-22, the steep prices can contribute to the fact that students do not graduate. When they don’t, they are at a higher risk of defaulting on their loans. The default rate for Newbury, for example, is 14 percent, above the national average of 11 percent.

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Chillo said Newbury’s counselors explain the costs to students and make sure they have financial plans. But he acknowledged that some schools can harm students in the long run.

Small private colleges “serve an important part, but at the same time, if you don’t do it right . . . it becomes predatory,” he said.

Veronica Long, who graduated from Lowell High School, considered attending a small private college. She loved the campus, and the school awarded her some aid, but she would have graduated with debt.

Instead, she chose Worcester State University, a place that felt like home because of its diverse student body. Even better, her education there is free, thanks to grants and scholarships. She plans to graduate without debt.

“I wouldn’t trade being in a private versus a public school for anything,” she said.

At Worcester State, 51 percent of students graduate within six years of starting their degrees. Other public colleges in the region have similar rates.

At Worcester, low-income students graduate at roughly the same rate as the overall population of students. At many private colleges, poor students graduate at a lower rate.

Some small private colleges believe they can reinvent themselves into something that will ultimately graduate a much higher percentage of their high-risk populations. Among these is Pine Manor College in Brookline, a former finishing school that’s surrounded by mansions.

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Nearly all students at Pine Manor are low-income, students of color, or the first in their family to attend college.

Right now, just one in four Pine Manor students graduates in six years. But the new president, Tom O’Reilly, said he has radically changed the education model and expects to see that number improve soon. The college was on probation until a year ago, when it satisfied accreditors with improvements in its finances and other matters.

O’Reilly said the retention rate of students from Boston Public Schools who attend Pine Manor has risen to 92 percent from 69 percent during his two years at the school.

Its academic offerings are now more limited, to cut costs and to help ensure that students graduate with marketable degrees. It also gives students life coaches and unlimited tutoring.

“Much like a charter school, we believe that we can do it differently and do it better,” he said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.