197-year-old college unable to fend off shutdown; Bradford to close doors at end of the school year


HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Bradford College, a liberal arts institution founded when Thomas Jefferson was in the White House, will close at the end of this academic year, the victim of a higher education market that more and more squeezes out small schools.

The 600-student college had struggled over the past months to come up with a plan that would allow it to stay open. As late as last week administrators thought they had succeeded. But over the weekend, officials said, it became clear that the money simply wouldn't last as long as it would take to put that lifesaving plan in place.

Students sobbed openly at a morning assembly as the head of the school's trustees announced the news before Thanksgiving vacation.

The closing of the school -- its historic buildings and 80-acre green campus the very picture of a New England college -- is a visible sign of the end of an era when most students attended small, private four-year colleges close to their homes. In 1960, more than half the students nationwide attended private colleges; now, less than 20 percent do.

Students now tend to prefer state universities, seen as better brand names. More want to go to school in urban areas; small schools tend to be in smaller towns. And more and more, they are willing to travel out of state to college.

To stay attractive, small colleges have discounted their tuitions -- in fact, Bradford was offering three-fourths of its students some kind of grant. Those students paid an average of about $12,500, more than half off the so-called "sticker price" of $28,000, placing Bradford among the top five best values for colleges in the Northeast in this year's U.S. News & World Report rankings.

But small schools also have small endowments, making them more dependent on tuition, so they can't afford to discount too much. Bradford's enrollment fell short by 31 students this year; that alone was the difference between staying open and closing, officials said.

"We hear so much about the Harvard drama, the Princeton drama, the Williams drama, that we forget that there are a whole lot of schools out there that are really living hand-to-mouth, or quite close to it," said Gordon Winston, director of the Williams College Project on the Economics of Higher Education. "People are thinking so broadly geographically that the little local colleges that could get by fine when there wasn't competition are having a tough time of it."

Bradford officials said they wanted to announce the closing before the Thanksgiving break, so students could talk with their families about what to do next.

But even for them, the decision to close was a relatively sudden one. They had begun working on the strategic plan in August and expected to have the final draft ready in February.

"We were looking at things that take two to three years to develop," said President Jean Scott. "We realized we didn't have two to three years.

"What became clear, as we were looking at the kinds of cuts we would have to make, is that if we made the cuts that brought us anywhere close to where we need to be, we didn't think we had a college left.

"We're very proud of the tradition here and of the quality of the education we offer. We were not willing to decimate it just to stay open."

Between 1990 and the 1996-1997 school year, 167 institutions nationwide shut their doors, according to the American Council on Education. Of those, 112 were private, two-year colleges. Across the nation, there are about 300 schools like Bradford, four-year colleges with fewer than 750 students. About 15 schools with similar profiles have closed in the past decade.

Those who study the higher education market say the number would be even higher if not for two factors: The booming stock market has stretched endowments further, and the number of students is at an all-time high.

Small schools have tried to stay competitive by emphasizing special programs or qualities. At Bradford, the niche has been one-on-one attention in liberal arts courses combined with career experience.

The student-faculty ratio is 12-to-1, and the average class size is 15 students. Tuesday, students said they could not imagine a warmer campus environment.

Once a junior college, the 197-year-old school was one of the region's first coeducational institutions. It became a four-year college in 1971. It has reached beyond its traditional geographical boundaries to attract students from 27 states and 35 countries this year.

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