They're strewn across the Midwestern landscape, as iconic of an endangered way of life as the small towns that house them. A few offer advanced degrees, but most are four-year colleges, conferring bachelor degrees only. Largely founded by religious denominations, both Protestant and Catholic, they defend that doctrinal purity today against the pressures -- mostly economic -- of a world that may go on without them.
These are the mini-institutions of higher education, private colleges and universities of the Midwest, most of them no more than a few hundred to a couple thousand students, overshadowed by the giant state schools that dominate Midwestern education, dwarfed even by the community colleges that increasingly compete with them for students.
Some are internationally recognized as true temples of learning -- Grinnell in Iowa, for instance, or Carleton in Minnesota or Oberlin in Ohio. Most are household names only in their own neighborhoods -- Buena Vista, Simpson, Coe, Viterbo, De Pauw, Hope, Wabash, Wooster. A few are known for particular academic strengths, like the music program at Luther, in Iowa. Some work hard to be part of the community around them, like Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa: others exist as intellectual islands, aloof from their decaying towns, like Knox in Galesburg, Illinois.
Some are financially solid, like Grinnell with its huge endowment, or the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, with its philanthropic underpinning. But most have small endowments and are barely scraping by.
Some, like Knox with its civil war campus, emit an aura of antiquity. Most are more modern, a chorus of brick buildings, often placed around a quad, graceful and pleasant places, like campuses everywhere.
Most of them are the biggest employers in their towns -- especially now, as the towns shed jobs and industry. Which is why the economic and social pressures that threaten their existence send tremors beyond the campus, to endanger the little civilizations they help support.
A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrated the problems by focusing on Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa -- 1,350 students, with ties to the Christian Reformed Church in North America -- and Northwestern College, in Orange City, only eight miles away -- 1,206 students, with ties to the another Dutch Calvinist sect, the Reformed Church in America. Students at both schools pay about $30,000 per year in tuition, room and board. Iowa State University in Ames costs half as much. The nearest community college, Northwest Iowa in nearby Sheldon, costs only one-third as much.
This is a tough sell in the best of times. In an era when northwest Iowa, like so much of the Midwest, is losing both jobs and young people, you have to ask whether these colleges have a future.
If they do, it probably lies in their ability to rethink their mission and redefine their place in the structure of higher education. This rethinking and redefining have already begun. Big state universities, faced with ever declining state funding, are becoming more private than public. Both smaller state universities and, especially, community colleges are growing and taking on new mandates. For-profit universities inhale students and challenge the traditional non-profit schools. K-12, widely seen as failing students across the Midwest, experiment with dozens of new ways to teach, all the while fending off competition from charter and magnet schools. Teachers' unions, under attack from Republican governors, discover that even their traditional defenders often see them as part of the problem.
The Chicago Council joined the debate earlier this year with its publication of a Heartland Paper, "A Master Plan for Higher Education in the Midwest," by James J. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan. The Council has active plans to keep this conversation going.
So far, small colleges have played little role in this conversation -- perhaps because of their size, or their geographic isolation, or their religious ties, far from the secular slant of most big schools.
That's about to change. Consider:
As the Chronicle points out, the number of high school students in the Midwest is expected to fall by 8 percent from 2008 to 2015. This makes sense: population everywhere outside the major cities is falling. Except for schools like Grinnell, these colleges traditionally draw students locally -- kids who want to stay close to home and who value the religious-based education.
As a comment to that Chronicle article noted, these schools "once were strongly supported by their denominations. Now those denominations themselves are often struggling to survive financially." In a traditional economy under siege by global forces, everyone -- including schools and churches -- feels the pain.
To compete for students with state schools, these colleges offer deep tuition discounts -- an average of 50 percent for freshmen in the Midwest. That means less income, which means deferred maintenance and pressure on salaries.
The usual rivalries between colleges are heightened in these schools by religious schisms. This hampers cooperation, meaning that the schools usually have to offer a full range of majors, to suit all tastes, rather than sharing classes, professors and facilities with neighboring schools.
Many schools try to recruit foreign students, but student bodies too often remain monochromatic. Not all Chinese students, for instance, want to exchange Beijing for Orange City. Nor do many of them relish spending four years in schools that discourage drinking, or in towns that suspect immigrants of any sort.
But the old ways may have to give in to new demands. Already, thinkers like Duderstadt are arguing that, if the Midwest is going to revive economically, its big research universities should concentrate more on research and graduate education. Some academics even wonder if these universities should keep on teaching undergrads, or at least freshmen and sophomores, or let these undergrads go to smaller and less high-powered schools, freeing research universities to do what only they can do.
Well, this seems a marriage made in heaven -- big schools like Michigan or Iowa shedding undergrads, who could go to the small colleges, which desperately need these students.
Easier said than done. This would probably mean a restructuring of student financing, with state aid going not to the schools themselves but directly to students. This means state funding of private religious schools. It also means these private schools would become more public, even as public universities become more private.
Unthinkable -- until one has to think about it.
Some of these small schools just may not survive, or will consolidate. Again, unthinkable -- except that high schools already are consolidating and that pressure is on larger schools to leverage their strengths by cooperating academically with traditional rivals in neighboring states.
Attempts have been made in the past to build links between big research universities and their smaller independent colleges. The big universities provided facilities, including labs and libraries, to the colleges' students, while the colleges invited post-doctorate students from the universities to give them teaching experience.
According to people involved, these links worked so long as the small colleges involved were up to the universities' level. But the universities balked at cooperating with lesser colleges. This sounds snobbish, but these big universities have been ruling the educational roost for years because they truly were elite, and saw themselves as such.
I wonder if this experiment doesn't deserve another shot. Given the glut of job-seeking PhDs these days, small and out-of-the-way colleges find that they can hire first-rate faculty who are glad for a job, any job. Also, student acceptance rates are falling, which could persuade well-qualified students to look at small colleges that they wouldn't have considered before.
Most of these colleges and universities belong to one association or another -- the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, for instance, which includes colleges mostly from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois; or the Great Lakes Colleges Association, with colleges mostly from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan. Many big universities belong to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which includes the Big Ten schools plus the University of Chicago.
It may be time for these associations to get together, read James Duderstadt's paper, and start talking about the future.
These small schools may not have a future. But we'd lose a lot without them.
In this great big globalizing world, size does count. The future belongs to big corporations, big retailers, big farms. But even in this gigantized universe, there still are places for the small. Basement entrepreneurs still manage to set up small businesses and thrive. There still seems to be room for both Wal-Mart and small boutiques. Factory farms dominate the countryside but small niche farms and locavores are growing, too.
Is there a place for niche education? Call it localore, if you will.