Higher Education Shifts Spell Trouble for Small Liberal Arts Colleges

Editor’s note: The original version of this editorial incorrectly stated that Antioch College would likely close if it could not merge with another institution. In fact, Hampshire College, not Antioch, is seeking a merger. The editorial has been updated and the Review regrets the error.

Small liberal arts institutions like Oberlin are in trouble. This much has become clear in recent years, as many — not just Oberlin — have faced significant financial challenges, some even forced to close their doors.

Earlham College, for instance, was forced to cut a staggering 12 percent of costs across all divisions in a single year and suspend its football program. Hampshire College recently announced that it’s looking to merge with another institution in order to remain financially solvent, and that its budget troubles may prevent the school from enrolling a new class this fall. Ohio’s own Antioch College — which has been kept afloat for the last eight years primarily through alumni donations — will also struggle to balance its budget unless it can address significant enrollment shortfalls.

Fortunately, Oberlin isn’t staring down the brink of bankruptcy like other schools — at least not yet. However, our challenges are severe and, if left unaddressed, could become unsalvageable. It was for this reason that President Carmen Ambar assembled the Academic and Administrative Program Review committee, tasked with assessing Oberlin’s spending patterns to ensure Oberlin’s long-term financial solvency.

While Oberlin certainly faces individual challenges, some of the factors contributing to our budget deficit are shared by small liberal arts schools across the board.

For decades, the number of high school graduates rose consistently. Beginning in about 2006, however, the figure began to hover around 3.5 million graduates per year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. This plateau in high school graduates means that colleges and universities are increasingly competing for the same applications — the population isn’t growing.

Further, only about one-sixth of those graduates (at most) are interested in receiving a four-year private education, and even fewer have the test scores or income available to meet Oberlin’s academic standards and price tag.

Beginning in 2026, the average number of high school graduates is projected to decline nationwide, particularly in the Midwest and East Coast because of decreasing populations and lower birth rates. Unfortunately for Oberlin, students from those areas make up the majority of our student body. Many of those available graduates will also likely question the value of a college degree relative to its price, as tuition rates have exploded across the board in recent decades.

This drop foreshadows a higher education landscape even more competitive than it is now — where thousands of schools are competing for a dwindling number of interested applicants.

For schools like Oberlin, that pool will be even further drained as large state schools promote small niche programs, tracks, and honors colleges that promise to mirror the private liberal arts experience for a fraction of the cost. For some students it simply doesn’t make financial sense to attend a college that will cost upwards of $280,000 for four years at sticker price — regardless of how nice the All Roads swag is or how clean the new Langston Hall bathrooms are.

Members of the AAPR committee are certainly aware of these realities, but it’s important for students and other community members as well to understand this landscape and how it will impact the future of private liberal arts schools. The challenge now in front of us is how to distinguish Oberlin from the pack — a steep ask as the number of competitors grows and the number of potential applicants shrinks.

We need to be able to make a case for Oberlin that reverberates off campus as well as on it. President Ambar’s administration is keenly aware of this need, and work is already underway to boost Oberlin’s marketability and create clearer pathways for students to connect their interests and passions with future career opportunities, all while reaping the benefits of a small, tight-knit campus community.

Oberlin’s doors aren’t about to close, and the language of financial ‘crisis’ likely creates more hysteria than it’s worth. However, these are the questions we need to be keeping in mind now, as the AAPR committee prepares to unveil at least some of its findings and recommendations to the broader Oberlin community.

Why Oberlin? It’s a question that many of us intrinsically know the answer to, even if we might struggle to put it into words. Now is the time to begin to articulate that vision, as we collectively set sail into uncharted waters.