To Save Themselves, Small Colleges Offer Lifeline to Their Hometowns

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ALBION, Mich.—Phillip and

Stephanie Mastin

have lived all of their 40-plus years in this small manufacturing town set amid farmers’ fields. Neither, though, had ever attended a lecture or a basketball game at the private college near their home.

“There was just no reason for us to come here,” said Mr. Mastin, a former welder at a shuttered auto-parts plant who is now studying at a community college.

But last spring, the couple sat inside one of Albion College’s red brick buildings as their 18-year-old son collected a $45,000-a-year scholarship from the school.

The free ride, one of 13 given to local students in the past two years, is part of a change playing out at small, liberal arts colleges in beaten-down towns across the country. As they struggle with falling enrollments and difficult finances, they are realizing how their own futures are intertwined with the broader community.

Daryus Mastin, won a scholarship and to attend Albion College. Although the school is in his hometown, he had spent little to no time on campus in the past.

Daryus Mastin, won a scholarship and to attend Albion College. Although the school is in his hometown, he had spent little to no time on campus in the past.

“We can’t survive if this town isn’t healthy,” said Albion’s President

Mauri Ditzler,

who was hired to turn around the 181-year-old school. “And the town can’t survive without us.”

America’s rural colleges were once the backbone of the country’s higher education system. Many predate the land grant universities—large campuses built on federally controlled property toward the end of the 19th century. Many of the smaller schools have withstood the Civil War, two World Wars and more recent recessions.

Today, like other pillars of small-town America, rural schools are in jeopardy. Loss of manufacturing jobs, construction work and less lending activity for new businesses have combined to shrink the populations around campus. With many companies either moving or downsizing, there are few work opportunities for those left behind, let alone for new college graduates.

Between 2009 and 2014, 43% of about 300 private four-year colleges in rural areas and small towns saw a decline in undergraduate enrollment, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. Though urban and suburban institutions similarly saw enrollment drops, rural college leaders are worried that their remote locations will make it harder for them to recover.

Attempting to bounce back, some schools, including Albion, are breaking through the campus-city divide.

Albion, which has seen its enrollment drop about 30% in the last decade from a high of more than 1,900 in 2006, is now placing interns at City Hall after warning students for years to avoid walking in the high-crime community. Instead of busing them 20 miles to another city to shop, it is investing tens of millions of dollars in the local business district.

“I’m hoping for what every business is hoping for, revitalization,” said

Corinne Atchison,

owner of a local bed-and-breakfast called the Palmer House. “I’m already seeing a big difference because there are more speakers and events on campus.”

At Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., a 2014 survey of students who were accepted but didn’t enroll found many were turned off by Ripon’s moribund downtown. In a bold show of support, the school moved the president’s office off campus, to the city’s desolate main street. It also helped install art galleries and shops in formerly abandoned buildings and opened a student-designed park in a vacant lot. A $22 million athletic facility for students and area residents is set to open next summer.


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The population of Niagara Falls, N.Y., has fallen by half to 50,000 over the last half century. Local flight has prompted the city and Niagara University to launch a campaign to rebuild the community. The city will repay student loans, up to $3,500 a year, if recent graduates agree to live in certain distressed neighborhoods. A year and half ago, the school funded a tourism institute downtown to increase visitors to the town’s eponymous falls and invested in trolleys to bring people to the city and school.

And in southwest Virginia, Emory & Henry College is building a new $16 million school of physical therapy in what’s left of the shopping district nearest their school—instead of on campus.

“It’s not just about being altruistic, this is about our own economic livelihood,” said school spokesman

Dirk Moore.

“If the town continues to wither, we’re in trouble. If people in the region flourish, they will have the money to spend on higher education and that is very important to our future.”

Downtown Albion, Mich.
ENLARGE

Downtown Albion, Mich.

But turnarounds are slow to come and these efforts may ultimately prove little more than window dressing, said

Dick Longworth,

a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs who has studied the deindustrialization of the Midwest.

“These are good places to start,” Mr. Longworth said. “But turning around a dying city isn’t easy.”

Albion College was established in 1835 to help educate Native Americans and European settlers. Starting after World War II, Albion, like many small regional private schools, tried to establish a national reputation to attract students from around the country, said Mr. Ditzler, the president. As school leaders looked beyond their communities, many lost interest in their own backyards. Residents felt the snub.

By the time she came of age,

Lenn Reid,

an Albion city council member and grandmother, said the gap between the school and the town was so wide that students were told not to walk beyond a park at the edge of campus.

“The school saw its mission as somewhere else and didn’t want to have much to do with the community,” Ms. Reid said.

The divide deepened as Albion’s economic engine—turning steel into parts for wagons, railcars and automobiles—sputtered. The foundries, which once employed more than 5,000 people, began to close in the 1970s.

New faculty members stopped buying homes in town in favor of Ann Arbor and Battle Creek, both less than 60 miles away. The population fell to about 8,000 today from a high of nearly 15,000 in the 1970s. About 30% of the city is African-American and working class. The student body has traditionally come from the wealthy white suburbs of Detroit.

Trustees began to consider investing in Albion several decades ago as the local economy declined. The idea gained traction when the recession hit in 2007, as the state’s economy faltered and enrollment plummeted.

Dr. Ditzler arrived in 2014 with a record of elevating civic engagement at his earlier job as president of Monmouth College in Illinois. In interviews with trustees he told them he thought the school could be saved by urging students to use the community as a laboratory to heal real-world problems.

In short order, the college and its network of allies purchased several buildings downtown, invested in a new $9 million hotel and began repairing or demolishing some of the nearly 50 abandoned homes next to campus. It also launched the scholarship program to bring local high-school students to the college.

The school has a master plan that calls for about $100 million to be invested in the community over 15 years. About $25 million, some of it from private capital sources, has so far been put to work. As a result, more faculty have moved closer to campus. A couple of school professors even built a brew pub.

Dr. Ditzler spurned his predecessor’s house outside of town and moved into a place across the traditional dividing line between the school and city. His rear windows overlook an abandoned foundry; the front window has a view of the immaculately manicured campus.

“Every morning when I wake I’m reminded of where I am and what the challenges are here,” he said.

Daryus Mastin,

the local scholarship recipient, says he is resisting the temptation to go home on weekends so he can study in the library. As for the campus outreach, he is encouraged by what he sees so far. “I think we’re here to be bridges to the community,” he said.

A pillow in the office of Albion College President Mauri Ditzier.
ENLARGE

A pillow in the office of Albion College President Mauri Ditzier.

Buttressing the town has become more than just a local experiment at Albion. “We have all of America’s problems right here,” said Dr. Ditzler, citing racism, class divides and job loss. “Maybe we can find solutions to them here, too.”

—Andrea Fuller contributed to this article.

Write to Douglas Belkin at doug.belkin@wsj.com

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To Save Themselves, Small Colleges Offer Lifeline to Their Hometowns

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