Antioch College— A small college, at least for now
- Published: May 18, 2017
Antioch College is small. Very small. At just 179 students, and in the process of recruiting a modest-sized class targeted at 60, Antioch today is a considerably smaller institution than college leaders envisioned when Antioch reopened to students in 2011.
And it’s likely to be that way for some time, college President Tom Manley recently acknowledged. In an alumni teleconference in March, Manley told participating alumni that Antioch had “decided to step back from larger numbers and faster growth,” while also developing a comprehensive enrollment management plan under new Dean of Admission Bill Carter, hired last fall.
“It would be great to have an ascending line of student enrollment,” Manley said in a recent interview with the News. “But that’s not where we are.”
Earlier projections had the reopened college scaling up to 600 students, about the same enrollment level as the early 2000s, though down from the heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, when enrollment peaked at 2,000 students.
“It’s not a straight line from 2,000 students to 200,” Manley said, referring to enrollment fluctuations over the years.
Antioch is not abandoning its efforts to strengthen recruitment and retention of students, both of which have been challenges since its reopening. At the same time, however, college leaders and the college community are adjusting themselves to the reality that Antioch is, for the foreseeable future, not just “small” — defined by the Great Lakes Colleges Association, or GLCA, as under 2,500 students — but tiny.
Other “tiny colleges” exist, said Manley, citing Marlboro College in Vermont and the College of the Atlantic in Arcadia, Maine, with student bodies of 300 and 350 undergraduates, respectively. Antioch may begin to look to those colleges as benchmarks, rather than to traditional GLCA peers such as Oberlin and Kenyon, he added.
More powerfully, though, Antioch College is looking inside, at what it does well, and what it could do better, to shape a new college that’s sustainable, distinctive and expressive of Antioch’s deepest values.
Declines in enrollment
Antioch College reopened with 35 students in the fall of 2011. Over the next three years, it enrolled new classes of 75, 101 and 71 students, according to previous News reports. Enrollment numbers dropped in both of the last two years, however, with 66 students entering the college in 2015 and 41 enrolling last year. From a high of 271 students in 2015, total enrollment now stands at 179 students.
The enrollment drops coincided with the phasing out of the college’s four-year, full-tuition Horace Mann Fellowships, replaced by more modest half-tuition scholarships, though with other forms of aid making up some of the difference. Those half-fellowships are still in place for the coming year.
“We opened the college on a full-ride basis with the vision of recruiting successively larger classes to reach 600 students,” Manley said recently.
But that goal proved unrealistic, he said. Antioch has struggled to compete for students once the full-tuition scholarship went away. And turnover in the admissions department from 2015 into 2016 hampered Antioch’s recruitment efforts during that period, college leaders have previously said.
So the college has scaled back its expectations for this year. The college is targeting 60 students for the class of 2017, down from last year’s unmet goal of 75 to 80. So far, the college is a sixth of the way toward that goal. Ten students have made a deposit at Antioch, signaling their intent to enroll in the fall, according to Dean of Admission Bill Carter this week. That’s down from this time last year, when 25 students had committed to the college.
But Antioch has admitted more students so far this year, 123 versus 75 at this time last year. That’s because it’s seeing more completed applications of high quality, a good sign that efforts to target “right-fit” students are paying off, Carter said.
Current students and faculty are making calls to admitted students to help tip the balance in Antioch’s favor. And the admissions department will continue to recruit through the summer, Carter said.
Loss of students, faculty
Admissions is only part of the story, however. Students enrolled at the college have also left at high rates, often within their first year. For example, of the 41 students who enrolled in the fall of 2016, 15, or more than a third, have left, according to Director of Marketing and Communications Mark Reynolds. A report in the student newspaper, the Record, last August suggests the class entering in 2015 experienced a similar loss, with 22 of 66 students, or about a third, leaving in the first nine months. And the class that will graduate this year, the college’s largest class to date, is about a quarter smaller than it was in the fall of 2013.
The college recently established a retention task force to examine factors leading to student attrition and ways the college can better retain students, according to Carter, who is serving as a member.
Students leave for a variety of reasons, according to current staff and faculty. Antioch students are passionate and idealistic, and can burn out. A small campus can be lonely, with a smaller pool of potential friends and mentors; it can also give students a sense of being highly scrutinized and exposed. The year-round academic schedule, with its four quarters and limited time off, is demanding. And the very reason that draws many students to the reopened Antioch — the chance to help rebuild the college — is also a factor in turning some away, according to two current students, Meli Osanya and Perin Ellsworth-Heller.
“It’s not always clear when people sign up for Antioch just how intense it will be,” Ellsworth-Heller said.
Osanya described the challenges she’s faced in balancing academic demands with the work of shaping a new college. She was among the students of color who pushed for, and helped establish, an office of diversity and inclusion several years ahead of the college’s original timeline in response to racial incidents on the Antioch campus last spring.
“When am I a student and when am I a reformer and builder?” she said of her sometimes competing roles. “The balance can be hard to find.”
The college has experienced high levels of faculty turnover, too, and that feeds into student attrition, according to Assistant Professor of History Kevin McGruder. The departure of a faculty mentor may tip a student toward leaving the college, he said.
As with student attrition, faculty attrition has a variety of causes. But burnout from the college’s intense demands on a small faculty’s time and talents is a key one, according to McGruder.
“Workload has led to some people leaving,” he said. “As tenure-track faculty, we need to be producing scholarship. But people can be so busy they can’t get scholarship done.”
Associate Professor of Performance Louise Smith, who taught at Antioch prior to its 2008 closure, echoed those views.
“Burnout is big for all academics,” she said, but the startup culture at Antioch intensifies the experience.
“It’s my 20th year with Antioch as a professional. I’m learning how to step back. It’s a conversation everybody needs to have with themselves,” she said.
Opportunity in challenge
The challenges facing Antioch are substantial, but so are the possibilities, according to a range of faculty, staff and students interviewed for this article.
“It’s not like we wanted this situation,” said McGruder, a faculty member since 2012 who has been active in many aspects of the college’s rebuilding. “But we can be excited about the opportunities it presents.”
Most fundamentally, the opportunity is to re-create Antioch, and by extension, to reinvent a new, 21st-century model of experientially based liberal arts learning, according to Manley.
“Antioch College began as an innovation,” he writes in his recent vision statement for the college, “Antioch@175,” which looks ahead to the college’s 175th anniversary in 2025. “[People] come to Antioch because it is a laboratory for discovering the new and better ways of living and learning that are the building blocks for democratic communities and a healthy planet.”
The college is attempting this reinvention in a variety of ways.
This spring, the college began an intiative to redesign the curriculum to better reflect Antioch’s true values and capabilities.
Part of the impetus is practical, responding to the college’s small faculty and small student body, which makes offering the full range of traditional liberal arts courses a challenge.
“We’ll focus on where the faculty and college has depth to offer, and fashion a distinctive approach to liberal learning around that,” Manley explained.
This may mean reducing the college’s current 11 majors to just a few. In the arts division, for example, faculty are considering merging the current three majors into a single interdisciplinary arts major that’s better suited to a small department yet retains rigor and depth, according to Associate Professor Smith.
“Interdisciplinary learning is a powerful paradigm in the arts,” she said.
More idealistically, the college is exploring organizing its offerings around three broad themes, rather than the existing academic disciplines. Themes being considered are democracy, sustainability and storytelling, areas where the college has both depth and distinctiveness, according to Manley. For example, Antioch has a longstanding community governance system that involves students in college decision-making; it has its own farm and farm–to-table kitchen and myriad existing commitments to sustainability; and it has strengths in the visual, performance and media arts, as well as its own public radio station, WYSO.
“We’re looking at the curriculum in light of that big picture, and finding interesting niches and strengths,” said Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Kim Landsbergen, who has taken part in brainstorming around the sustainability theme.
Another goal for the curricular redesign is to more closely tie together academics and the co-op program, as well as more clearly communicate to prospective students the distinctiveness of co-op, which Manley said is unlike other colleges’ work programs in its purpose and depth.
“Co-op is the center. We’re designing around that,” with more emphasis on applied and experiential learning in the core academic curriculum, Manley said.
“We’re an experiential learning college. What we offer really is quite different,” Smith observed.
Another way Antioch is reinventing itself is through a “design-build” approach called Framework for Antioch College’s Transition, or FACT. Introduced by Manley last spring, FACT has involved people from all parts of the college in brainstorming ideas for creating an institution that’s sustainable, collaborative, creative and fiscally prudent.
The first FACT initiative took place in August 2016 as a week of brainstorming sessions focused on identifying new and creative uses for the college’s “curricular assets,” entities such as Glen Helen, WYSO, the Coretta Scott King Center and Antioch Farm and Kitchens. The goal was to explore how the assets could enhance the curriculum and generate revenue for the college.
“It was kind of like rolfing,” said commuity life staffer Jennifer Berman, referring to the strenuous physical therapy technique. “It loosened people up to think about exciting ways to reconfigure Antioch’s building blocks.”
Third-year student Meli Osanya said FACT gave students a platform for sharing their ideas.
“FACT brought in a lot of student representation. It was a more transparent way of involving students in rebuilding the college,” she said.
A thousand ideas were generated during the week, with 120 ideas prioritized. So far, a “handful” have been funded internally through seed grants, according to college spokesperson Mark Reynolds. From a new global seminar called “On Eating, Cooking and Thinking” to the possibility of the college offering mindfulness education in the Yellow Springs community, the ideas have the potential to generate revenue, but don’t currently, he said.
One idea that originated with the FACT process, though it was not submitted for internal funding, was the Coretta Scott King Center’s recent inaugural luncheon in Dayton, designed to honor social justice heroes and raise the visibility of the center beyond Yellow Springs. Two hundred people attended, and about $11,500 was raised, according to Reynolds.
Alumni giving still paramount
New revenue sources take time to develop, college leaders acknowledged. For now, Antioch remains almost totally funded by philanthropic gifts. Nearly all of this giving comes from Antioch alumni, according to Vice President for Advancement Susanne Hashim, the wife of President Manley, who is working to cultivate alumni donors as well as diversify philanthropy beyond the alumni base.
“Alumni have been incredibly generous, and they continue to be incredibly generous, and we will continue to turn to them,” she said in a recent interview.
Hashim declined to cite fundraising figures for fiscal year 2017, as the year is still two months shy of closing on June 30. But she said she was hopeful about the outcome of efforts begun when she stepped into the position last August.
The annual fund, considered a bellwether of alumni giving, is currently outpacing the last two years’ results, according to Hashim, with $2.6 million raised from 2,826 individual donors. And this year’s Million Dollar March Match, an annual fundraiser, was a success, setting a new high of $1.2 million, including the match by class of 1968 alumna Barbara Winslow.
Meanwhile, Antioch has just begun its budget process for fiscal year 2018, which begins on July 1. The college made significant budget cuts in December, cutting five staff positions and salaries for 23 senior and executive administrators as part of a long-term effort to substantially reduce costs.
“We’ve shifted the college from an aspirational budget to a budget that’s evidence-based,” Manley said recently of the earlier budget decisions.
College leaders in December said they were targeting $15.8 million for the fiscal year 2018 budget, nearly $2 million lower than the current year. College spokesperson Reynolds said recently that the actual budget for next year may come in “a little bit less.” He declined to specify areas that might be cut, saying those discussions had just begun.
Tuition revenue remains modest, given low enrollment and the fact that the college currently has an average discount rate of 91 percent, according to Manley, meaning that 91 percent of tuition revenue is returned to students in the form of institutional financial aid. In the current year, Antioch netted $675,000 in tuition and fees, or 7.4 percent of its total revenue this fiscal year to date, Reynolds stated.
The class entering in 2017 will receive less aid than previous classes, however. The college is aiming for a discount rate of 70 percent for the class entering in 2017, according to admissions dean Carter, meaning the college will realize more tuition revenue this year. By contrast, the average discount rate at private colleges and universities is just under 50 percent, according to a report last year in Inside Higher Ed.
Antioch tuition for 2016–2017 is $34,568, with a total cost to attend (including estimated costs of such expenses as travel and books) of just over $55,000, according to the college’s website. The half-tuition Horace Mann Fellowships are still in place. And new alumni-funded scholarships, such as the New Generations Scholarship, established last year with an inaugural gift by Al and Donna Denman, will substantially support qualified students with financial need, Hashim said.
New recruitment strategies
At a recent admitted students weekend, about 20 students who had been admitted to Antioch this spring came to Yellow Springs to check out the college and village and, perhaps, decide to enroll.
Community life staffer Jennifer Berman was on hand to meet the admittees. She was impressed.
“The students were really phenomenal; they were interesting, passionate, accomplished,” she said. On the strength of the students she met, admissions efforts seem to be on the right track, she added.
Dean of Admission Carter has implemented several new recruitment strategies this spring, including an effort to involve alumni in the recruitment process and more focused targeting of students who are likely to be interested in Antioch, with a continued emphasis on students of color and first-generation students.
The alumni effort, called the Alumni Recruitment Team, or ART, has been up and running for several months. About 20 alumni in six metro areas around the country are currently working on a volunteer basis to encourage qualified juniors and seniors to apply to Antioch, with more alumni interested in taking part. The admissions impact may not be immediate, Carter said, but alumni involvement stands to boost the college’s recruitment over time.
The college is also doing a better job of targeting students and schools whose interests and programs, respectively, match Antioch’s offerings, Carter said. This might include schools with Japanese or social justice clubs, or students involved with community gardens or farms.
“Antioch is a very different place,” he said. “You can’t cast a big net.”
At the same time, the college may soon broaden its pool of prospective students. It is laying the groundwork to recruit students from community colleges, a first for Antioch. A transfer agreement recently approved by Antioch faculty is now under review by administrators; if that agreement goes forward, Antioch will begin recruiting from community colleges for the class entering in 2018, according to Carter.
Few would dispute that the college needs to achieve a certain “critical mass” to survive. But Antioch is seeking growth with an eye on the long term, and on its basic values, according to Associate Professor Smith.
“The most important thing for us is to be a size that is sustainable, that we can build incrementally … and that allows us to be the kind of institution we are,” she said.