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Rural Blog: Rural colleges make big changes to stay afloat; ‘What’s a university without a history major?’

Many public universities in smaller towns are in crisis mode as enrollment and state funding continue to drop, and it doesn’t look like those trends will improve any time soon.

Administrators at such colleges are making drastic changes to combat the downturn, including slashing staff, changing up majors, appealing more to adults looking to switch careers, and merging satellite programs and even campuses, Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times.

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, near the geographic center of the state, is his object example. For 125 years the university has been a reputable, relatively inexpensive way for rural residents to get a degree and improve their lives, but declining enrollment and state funding have prompted university administrators to revamp the college’s offerings, eliminating classical liberal arts degrees like history and French and investing more in career-focused programs.

St. Catharine College in Kentucky, now closed

“But critics say that in trying to carve out a sustainable path for Stevens Point — and build a model for other struggling, regionally focused universities — administrators are risking the very essence of a four-year college experience,” Smith reports.

Advances in transportation technology are part of the reason rural colleges struggle.

“Most universities were founded generations ago, when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was more complicated,” Smith reports.

“As people moved toward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes connected the country, many rural universities have fallen on hard times.”

Rural private colleges, as well as public and private historically black institutions, are also hurting. Without the cushion provided by state funding, the trends that pressure public universities are more likely to cause private schools to close, like St. Catharine College in Kentucky and Dana College in Nebraska.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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