Confronting the Challenges Facing Small, Private Colleges

Demographics, economics, regulatory changes, and structural challenges are four critical issues affecting small, private higher education institutions today.


The focus of the 2016 Council for Christian Colleges and Universities Annual Conference (CCCU) was a publication written by Dr. David E. Johnston titled “Christian Colleges; Recognizing and Confronting the Challenges Ahead.” Johnston writes that the four main challenges facing small, private colleges and universities — regardless of affiliation — are demographics, economics, regulatory changes, and structural challenges.


Johnston says that historically, 70% of students attending private, Christian schools have a white, non-Hispanic background. Those students are typically 18 to 22 year-old traditional students, meaning full-time, residential students. According to Johnston’s studies, this population has already peaked and is now declining at an expected rate of .5% every year. Schools are projected to see a 2.7% annual increase in non-traditional students, or those that are part-time, commuting, of a wider age range, or a more diverse ethnicity.


Johnston claims there is an increasing resistance to tuition growth. The average family income is not growing as rapidly as net tuition. To offset this, many colleges offer self-funded financial aid options. However, schools have to raise tuition overall to create a surplus to fund the students requiring financial need. Continuing to increase tuition is not sustainable, because the cost will eventually become too high for all students. Community colleges, online colleges, and public universities with lower tuition rates add to the economic pressure facing small, private schools.

Regulatory Changes

Johnston argues that some students find the ideas of required faith, behaviors, and rules unappealing. Many Christian colleges require their students to sign contracts agreeing to uphold specific codes of conduct concerning things like dating, dancing, and drinking. Strict rules may not be appealing to the average college student. Many Christian schools and universities are also facing pressure from governing bodies to adopt policies and practices that they feel are contrary to their fundamental missions or beliefs in order to ensure continued funding.

Structural Challenges

Structural challenges are related to financial resources. Most small, private colleges and universities have high fixed costs that include salaries, maintaining the campus facilities, utility and energy costs, and other operating expenses.



What can small, private colleges and universities do to address these issues? Here are a few suggestions, as discussed by the attendees of the CCCU conference.

Intensely focus on your institution’s mission

Everything you do should be in response to your mission. Focus on the unique value of your institution.

Retention, retention, retention

Focus on retention. It’s much easier to keep students than to recruit more. Consider additional athletics, like a junior varsity or intramural team in addition to varsity, to help recruit students.

Develop international partnerships

With Christianity growing in other parts of the world, schools can identify those communities and target potential students.

Develop new revenue sources

Open your campus for public dining options, open recreation facilities to the public and charge membership fees, or open your facilities to community groups for meeting and conference use. Charge for services that might include offering camps, presenting webinars, or having professors speak at events where their expertise is needed. Offer spaces for local churches or groups needing a space for worship.

Provide loan opportunities

If a student needs financial assistance, the school can offer the loan instead of a bank, earning interest revenue and administrative fees.

Vary tuition and fees based on a student’s degree or career income potential

A history major’s tuition could be different than a nursing major’s because their earning potentials are different. If you graduate and your starting wage is $70,000 while your roommate’s is $35,000, you will be able to pay off your loans much faster than your roommate. Therefore, your tuition could have been significantly higher, earning the university more revenue.

Determine the non-negotiable rules for students and staff as related to your mission

Clearly communicate the larger theology behind your code of conduct and rules for behavior. If incoming students have a better understanding of the heart behind the policy, they will be more likely to see the value in living differently.

Reduce the cost to the school per student

Online courses save facility costs and can reduce the tuition cost for students. Work hard to make sure buildings are efficient and energy costs are low. Consider cutting programs in decline. Collaborate with peer institutions and independent college organizations that offer discount programs. Being part of a larger group might help get you a discount on office supplies, technology, and other costs.



Are you a small, private school facing these issues? What are you doing to deal with them? I’d love to continue this conversation and hear about your needs and how we might help.


Cathy Waggoner ASID
Director of Business Development