Small Colleges Are Struggling. Will They Survive?

Small private colleges and universities in New Jersey—and around the nation—are facing reduced resources and other challenges in a changing landscape.

Illustration showing small colleges riding waves

Illustration by Anna Godeassi

Montclair State University has thrown a multimillion-dollar lifeline to Bloomfield College, agreeing to provide financial support for the struggling private school to stay open during the 2022-2023 school year as the schools hash out the details of a more permanent arrangement that could include a merger.

In June, Rider University in Lawrenceville announced deep program cuts and layoffs to address a $20 million deficit after an earlier plan to sell its venerable Westminster Choir College fell apart. 

These are tough times for some small private colleges and universities in New Jersey and around the nation. Many have been forced to cut staffing and programs or sell property following a decade of enrollment declines. Those losses accelerated during the pandemic, destabilizing the tuition-dependent schools. 

“Net revenue is stagnant or declining, and [the schools] are being asked to do ever more, even before you consider inflation,” says Susan Fitzgerald, associate managing director of Moody’s, the credit-rating agency. “They’re being squeezed on both sides—on the income side and the expense side.” 


About one in five undergraduates and one in three graduate students in the state is enrolled in one of the 16 private, nonprofit, four-year colleges. Enrollment in these schools dropped from a peak of more than 79,000 in 2009 to under 64,000 in fall 2021, a decline of about 20 percent, according to the state Office of the Secretary of Higher Education. The baby bust that started during the 2008 recession means that the pool of 18-year-olds—the traditional college freshmen—is about to shrink further.

Enrollment at the most selective schools—Princeton University and Stevens Institute of Technology—is buoyed by demand. The larger of the schools—Fairleigh Dickinson and Seton Hall universities—generally have more resources to absorb enrollment declines.

But the smaller schools—from Bloomfield, with an enrollment of 1,300, to Monmouth University, with about 5,400 students—often have the hardest time because they are more reliant on tuition than are their public counterparts. Cuts were not uncommon during the pandemic. Monmouth, for example, implemented a hiring freeze, suspended capital projects, and reduced spending and administrative salaries. 

This year’s state budget increased operating aid to the private schools from $7 million to $10.5 million, and individual schools received millions more in state grants. The sector also received $161 million in state and federal pandemic-related aid, according to the Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey, which represents the schools. But the schools are likely to face a more difficult financial situation in 2023, analysts at Moody’s predict. 


The Bloomfield-Montclair agreement is perhaps the boldest of remedies to date. Founded by Presbyterians as a German theological school in 1868, Bloomfield is essentially a secular liberal arts school now, serving a predominantly Black and Hispanic student body. Affiliation with Montclair, a public university with 20,000 students, will give Bloomfield financial stability and additional programming. Montclair will gain a downtown campus about 6 miles away from its suburban location.

“Obviously, the geography makes a lot of sense, and we are committed to maintaining and enhancing the legacy of Bloomfield. We have similar missions of creating accessible high-quality education,” Montclair president Jonathan Koppell tells New Jersey Monthly. 

During this coming year, the two schools will hash out the details of a more permanent arrangement, “such as a merger or an affiliation,” according to a statement from the schools. 

Many small schools around the country are looking for partnerships. Two in the Philadelphia area, the University of the Sciences and St. Joseph’s University, recently merged, giving the latter more science and technology offerings. “If you have something to offer a larger university, it’s attractive,” says Lawrence Ladd, senior consultant with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. “It’s usually location or programming or both.”

Other schools have sought to raise funds by selling real estate, including Drew University in Madison, which has proposed the sale of 53 acres of its iconic, leafy campus. Proceeds would “go directly to improving the strength of Drew’s endowment, which provides scholarships and academic opportunities to our students,” Drew president Thomas J. Schwarz tells New Jersey Monthly. Local environmental groups are advocating that the land be purchased for conservation. 

Georgian Court University in Lakewood, where enrollment is down more than 11 percent since 2019, recently announced an agreement to sell 42 acres of its 150-acre campus to a nearby yeshiva, with plans to use part of the proceeds to build a new nursing and health sciences center and to create a student center. 


Students and their families often believe that private-school tuition—even with aid—can’t compete with public options. But experts say students need to “look beyond the sticker price.” 

Most of the schools offer generous aid packages that slash the cost of attending, says Steve Reynolds, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of New Jersey. Reynolds and others extoll the benefits of the small colleges, especially for students seeking small classes and close relationships with faculty.

Being at a smaller school meant a lot to Andrew Bernstein, 21, a senior majoring in political science at Rider, where he leveraged the school’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics to find internships. “They opened a lot of doors,” Bernstein, of Freehold, says. “I had a list going in [to college] of things I wanted to do. I have been able to do those things, and then some.”  

“They offer a different experience than, say, a community college, which can be transactional,” says Ladd, from the national governing association. “These colleges offer a fuller experience. You’re more likely to live in a residence hall; there is much more interaction with peers and faculty,” he says. “The difficulty right now is, less people are willing to pay for it.”

At Saint Peter’s, a Jesuit university with 3,000 students in Jersey City, no student pays the advertised $39,000 tuition, says president Eugene Cornacchia. Most qualify for state and federal aid and also receive institutional aid, thanks to a relatively robust donor base. The school’s fortunes were boosted this year by the success of the men’s basketball team, but the national attention has not yet translated into an enrollment hike, Cornacchia says.

Cornacchia says Saint Peter’s small size makes it “more nimble…We’re constantly scanning the marketplace and seeing what employers want,” he says, noting new graduate programs in data science and analytics.  


In hopes of shoring up enrollments and meeting student demand, many of the private schools are adding career-oriented programs, especially graduate and certificate programs in business, technology, education and health care. 

The schools are branching into the unexpected. Centenary has added an online master’s degree in happiness studies, which this fall is expected to enroll between 50 and 100 students—mostly adult learners from a range of fields. Caldwell University has introduced women’s acrobatics and tumbling as a varsity sport in the hopes of attracting students interested in the activity. 

With the number of traditional college-age students in decline, the schools have courted adult learners and transfer students.

Natalie Marks Saint-Preux, 31, of Hackensack, enrolled in Caldwell for a nursing degree. She chose Caldwell in part because it was generous with financial aid. She appreciated the vibe at Caldwell, with its suburban campus and small enrollment. “I had relationships with all of my professors,” said Marks Saint-Preux, who graduated in May. “They kind of get you and know what to expect from you.” 

Despite challenges, most of the schools are expected to survive, says Fitzgerald, of Moody’s. “Overall, these small colleges are very resilient. They’ve got a lot of stakeholders who are interested in their success, including some who may be in state government. In some cases, these are important economic drivers in their area.”

Ladd, from the national governing boards association, agreed. “Experts like me predicted more closures than have happened, because these institutions are tough,” says Ladd, noting the tenacity of alumni networks. “They believe in their mission, have a long history, and will work hard to survive.” 

Patricia Alex and Kathleen Lynn are contributing writers for New Jersey Monthly, and former reporters and editors at The Record of Bergen County.

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