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As Pandemic Hits Colleges' Finances, Small Town May Be Affected Too

NOEL KING, HOST:

The pandemic has been devastating college finances, and some of them are even on the brink of closing. What does that mean for college towns? Frank Morris of member station KCUR has this look at one rural college community.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Lots of towns across rural America are in steep decline, but tiny Sterling, Kan., is an island of vitality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) If you want less lonely and a lot more fun...

MORRIS: On a pleasant Tuesday evening, a local gospel quintet entertains folks spread out on lawn chairs in a large, tidy park. This town is anchored by Sterling College, a private evangelical Christian school founded in 1887. College senior Kyler Comley calls it one big partnership.

KYLER COMLEY: There's just so much overlap. The community supports the college; the college supports the community. You know, you just see how everything's intertwined.

MORRIS: This remote town of 2,200 boasts good schools, white-collar jobs and a healthy downtown. College students, faculty and staff breathe life into the place, same as they do for hundreds of other little college towns across the country. But students left here in March, and they haven't come back. Criminal justice professor Mark Tremaine is worried.

MARK TREMAINE: I think the bottom line is we've got to get students back to campus if we're going to survive. I think we have to accept whatever the risks are and do it.

MORRIS: Sterling College depends on about 500 students paying up to $26,000 a year tuition and another $8,000 or $9,000 for room and board. Sterling College president Scott Rich says the school, like many others, scrapes by from year to year.

SCOTT RICH: We're always dependent upon enrollment, always dependent upon that next year, always dependent upon persistence or retention. We have to get students to come back. And we're dealing with a lot of challenges.

MORRIS: Most schools now face daunting decisions. Scott Carlson follows the rolling crisis for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

SCOTT CARLSON: I think some of the people I know are looking at hundreds of colleges going out of business within the next several years if this pandemic continues and if the economic devastation associated with it continues.

MORRIS: Small liberal arts colleges have been shaky for years. Enrollments have slumped. Endowments have been tapped. Many schools have piled on debt in a building boom fueled by competition for students. Most offer classes online, but online classes don't pay the bills. Most small schools survive by providing an expensive, high-touch, in-person college experience. And Carlson says the pandemic is shredding that business model.

CARLSON: These colleges are unique little entities all on their own, and each one of them provides a unique spin on higher education.

MORRIS: At Sterling College, the foundation is Christianity, but football is king.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

MORRIS: Workers here are putting the final touches on a big gym, classroom and office complex. Many students enroll here for the chance to play college sports. It's a major selling point. About a quarter of the students attending in person are on the football team - that's right, a quarter. But sporting events can be major vectors for disease. And Jed Miller, who's finishing his degree at Sterling online next year, says that's another vulnerability.

JED MILLER: If COVID defeats the athletic season this year, it will probably defeat a lot of small colleges and, as a result, hurt a lot of small towns badly.

MORRIS: While small college towns tend to be some of the healthiest communities in remote rural areas, the colleges those towns depend on now pose a physical danger to residents. Kristina Darnauer is a family practice doctor in Sterling.

KRISTINA DARNAUER: The college probably is the most dangerous element for us in terms of COVID. It potentially brings back students from all over the U.S. who have variable levels of exposure.

MORRIS: Across the country, small colleges and college towns face the same dilemma over opening, but not everyone thinks that's all bad. Richard Price at the Clayton Christensen Institute argues that the pandemic will lead to better online classes and more equitable schools.

RICHARD PRICE: The traditional model, it was originally for the landed elite. And it wasn't for all genders. It wasn't for all races. And that is slowly getting phased out, along with some older business models that aren't pivoting well.

MORRIS: And Price thinks many small colleges will adapt. Lots of them have cheated death before. But there's no question the pandemic will close a number of American colleges and unravel small college towns along the way.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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