The history of Bethany College shows that few things have been easy in our 173 years. From the moment we were founded in 1840, operating a distinguished small college in the Appalachian wilderness has brought challenges. Through grit and grace, however, along with dedicated faculty and staff, and the generous leadership of trustees, alumni and friends across the decades, we have built something of enduring value. Bethany is a place that has inspired and influenced generations, a small college of national distinction.
Although the outlook for the College is very bright, as we look ahead, we must, nevertheless, be watchful of the trends that are impacting all small private colleges. These include not only the familiar economic and social forces that affect us, but also—following the recent election—political ones, as well.
A recent post-election webinar, sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE), offered some insights, from a legislative standpoint, on what the future may hold for Bethany and our peer institutions.
According to Terry Hartle, ACE’s senior vice president for government and public affairs, the November 6 election, while largely preserving the political status quo, reminds us of the exposure of higher education to certain national issues. These include the “fiscal cliff” mix of automatic budget cuts (or sequestration), expiring tax cuts, and the federal debt ceiling; preservation of Pell Grants (currently exempted from federal budget sequestration); student loan interest rates (scheduled to double as of July 1, 2013); funding for scientific research (not exempt from sequestration); and Higher Education Act reauthorization.
Generally for private colleges like Bethany, some issues have minimal impact; because we are not a research institution, for example, cuts in funding for scientific investigation are not very hurtful. For our prospective students and their families, however, any future erosion of Pell Grants, the scheduled increases in student-loan interest rates and the ever-present risk of falling back into economic recession all portend risk and uncertainty.
During the recent recession, many private colleges, including Bethany, had to work especially hard to hit enrollment targets for their incoming freshman classes. That was because budget-minded families, though they may have wanted to send their children to college, weighed their options carefully before committing to enrollment. Although Bethany offers more than $9 million annually in institutionally funded financial aid (mostly through scholarships), perception is reality in the minds of consumers. If they don’t perceive they can afford a college education, they may choose not to commit to it.
The good news is that in recent years, Bethany has increased enrollment, as well as retention, of students. We’re attracting academically well-prepared and motivated young scholars who find that our traditional liberal arts programs are the best preparation for the multiple career and life changes they will undoubtedly experience once they graduate. The strength of our national academic reputation, coupled with Bethany’s traditional emphasis on personal mentoring, internships and career development, will continue to recommend us to some of America’s best and brightest future Bethanians.
But our small college among the wilderness is not, so to speak, out of the woods. Competition from online and for-profit educational providers, to name just two challenges to our market share, is increasingly a force to be reckoned with. As my colleague Marylouise Fennell and I wrote recently in a forthcoming column for Enrollment Manager, the digital revolution is impacting how traditional colleges view acceptance of transfer credits. With the availability of low-cost, virtual-classroom options, we stated in the article, “a growing number of students will seek the cost-effective, convenient and expeditious virtual community to enhance their educational experience.”
So Bethany must keep alert not only to these challenges but also to the opportunities that our historic mission and formats of learning offer. We will always remain a viable choice to those seeking a residential, personalized and intellectually invigorating and interactive educational experience. Although our marketing must keep pace with students’ technological proficiency, and our residence and campus-life options must meet, or exceed, students’ expectations, our fundamental reason for being is sound, attractive and worthwhile.
Still, as I said before, few things are easy—not only at Bethany but also in much of private higher education today. Perhaps as our founder Alexander Campbell knew so well, the decisions we make to overcome obstacles and produce the thoughtful leaders that America needs are what continue to recommend us across the ages as a great institution. We have always managed to survive and, more importantly, to flourish.
As we enter the new year of 2013, our 174th as Bethany College, let me thank all of you for your support of our success in these remarkable times, and offer my wishes for the happiest of new years to you and yours.