By editorial board • 

Enrollment rise offers hope in jittery times

Linfield College will welcome 532 new students this fall, marking its largest enrollment increase in years. That increase represents tremendously good news for a small liberal arts college typically hosting fewer than 2,000 undergraduates on its McMinnville campus.

Linfield may not be teetering on the edge of the abyss, but like so many private liberal arts colleges in many small communities, it can certainly see the edge. And the ground beneath the campus is subject to tremors.

There may be a tendency to believe Linfield has always been here and will be forever more.

After all, the college was founded in 1858, only two years after the founding of its home town. That makes it seem a natural part of the landscape.

However, the school’s continued existence, at least in McMinnville, is by no means certain.

Ask the city of Poultney, Vermont. It lost Green Mountain College this year.

Wheelock College closed its doors in Boston last year. In fact, enough small colleges are following suit, falling victim to declining enrollment, to constitute a bona fide trend.

Linfield President Miles Davis told employees and students last December that the college faced a $3 million budget shortfall.

The situation was sufficiently grim that some members of the faculty accepted buyout offers. While no other reductions were expected, Linfield desperately needed an influx of new students.

Davis prophetically stated that the number students who are white and middle class is shrinking, but there is great untapped potential for students of color.

It’s true, borne out by the demographic shift in the incoming class. Students of color represent 40% of the new enrollees this fall at Linfield.

Combined, the 538 new students — 468 of them freshmen and 64 transfers — represent a 38% percent increase in college enrollment.

Feel free to breathe a sigh of relief. But don’t toss the oxygen canister quite yet. While this is positive news, the problems vexing small liberal arts colleges remain.

What the tea leaves of this fall’s enrollment reveal is the demographics of America’s college campuses are changing. Administrators — especially at small, vulnerable private colleges such as Linfield — would be wise to recognize those changes and market their institutions accordingly.

Linfield has much to offer. In addition to small class sizes, it has one of the highest four-year graduation rates in Oregon at 65.4%. Only Lewis & Clark, the University of Portland and Willamette University have recorded higher rates.

None of the hopeful signs at Linfield guarantee survival of its home campus, but they are, indeed, optimistic. They should encourage administrators to keep giving their recruiting efforts the ol’ college try.


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