The Converse Announcement
by Melissa Walker
A number of people have asked me to comment on Converse’s announcement that it is studying the options of changing its name to “university” and admitting men to undergraduate residential programs. I may have retired from teaching at Converse, but I remain committed to the institution and its students and alumnae, and I’ve never been one to shy away from offering my opinions, so here you go. . . .
I’ll begin by saying that yesterday was a sad day. I did not set out to teach at a women’s college (any more than I would have considered attending a women’s college when I was 18); I set out to teach at a college or university that emphasized the liberal arts and undergraduate education. But I landed at a women’s college, and I came to realize the power and value of the experience for many young women. And so I will just say it: it feels like a loss to imagine Converse becoming a co-educational institution. When we face loss, it’s important to grieve. And all of us who love Converse are grieving right now.
But I also have to say that the announcement did not surprise me. I knew it would come some day—unless the college closed first.
I had the privilege of serving on President Fleming’s cabinet for two years—from 2012-2014. In that capacity, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the complexities of the finances of colleges and universities, especially small colleges and universities. I learned about accreditor and federal requirements related to financial management. I learned about the enormous cost of running colleges campuses. I learned about depreciation and deferred maintenance. I learned about discount rates and bond ratings and much much more. And I came to understand that Converse was struggling hard and that it had been struggling for twenty years.
Under the leadership of Nancy Gray, Betsy Fleming, and Krista Newkirk, Converse College fought like crazy to evolve in ways that would allow the college to remain a single-gender institution while also remaining financially viable. But the forces arrayed against Converse are overwhelming.
I know you’ve heard about the first part of the problem endlessly. That is the single gender piece—the fact that women’s colleges are trying to attract students from half of the available college-age population and that only 2% or so of them are actively considering women’s colleges. When I came to Converse in the fall of 1996, there were about 70 women’s colleges in the U.S. Today there are 37. I won’t belabor that point since I know you’ve heard it before.
But there’s a bigger piece of the puzzle you may not be considering. Lots of small colleges have been struggling just like Converse and for just as long. Small colleges are closing in droves all over the country. At least 20 have closed since the fall of 2016 and many more have merged. (And that’s just on the non-profit side.) Not all of these colleges were small, and not all were private; some state schools have closed and others have merged for financial reasons. If you want to learn more about the reasons for these closures, read this article. I won’t reiterate all the points here.
And then there is the demographic cliff that Converse and every other institution in the country is facing. To put it simply, in the wake of the 2008-2009 recession, a lot of people didn’t have babies. In the year 2024, there will be a steep drop-off in the number of 18-year-olds in the population. That translates to a steep decline in the number of people enrolling in college. That simple fact has profound and sobering implications for colleges and universities, as you can read here.
So Converse is not alone. A Harvard prof who specializes in education estimates that 50% of ALL colleges in the U.S. will close in the next decade. I can’t seem to lay my hands on the evidence at the moment, but I have seen estimates from an analyst at one of the big bond rating agencies that that figure might even be as high as 75%. Mega-universities are thriving and elite private colleges are thriving, but the rest of colleges and universities face formidable odds.
Most alums and most students do not realize how lean times have gotten at Converse. Converse has been a lean institution for years, and frankly, I only remember two or three years in my 21 years there when we were not facing budget problems of one kind or another. There were several years during my time there when we did not receive raises, and retirement matching was cut four times in my time there—down to zero in my last year. The current faculty and staff have not had raises or retirement matching for three years running.
Many of you are young people trying to raise families in this economy, and you can imagine how very difficult that is. It’s very hard on morale, and it carries real costs for the people who are devoting their lives to educating Converse students. To put it bluntly, many of them are sacrificing their future financial security to the college. What’s more, Converse is facing difficulty in attracting the brightest and best faculty and staff, and I have no doubt that the college is losing good faculty and staff because of the financial constraints. We can’t offer students the best in curricular and co-curricular programming because there is simply not enough money to do so.
The accrediting agencies that oversee colleges and universities keep a close eye on institutional finances. They want to be sure that colleges and universities have a healthy enough bottom line to continue offering quality higher education to students. So far, Converse has managed to meet accreditor standards, but I know from seeing the numbers myself that the college will not be able to meet them for many more years. By my back of the envelope calculations, Converse might need an endowment 4 or 5 times the current size and an enrollment of 400 new students a year to do that. And the bottom line is that Converse doesn’t have a donor base that can raise that kind of money, and given the current demographics, the college won’t be able to recruit that many students. One of our sister colleges down the road, Bennett College, just lost its accreditation because of financial issues. Converse is not at quite this dire a point yet, but it’s coming.
Then there’s the Sweet Briar example. In spite of an injection of major alumnae money, their enrollment is still only about 300. Last fall, it was placed “on warning” by the same accrediting agency that oversees Converse. In short, Sweet Briar is living on borrowed time. It simply can’t support a large enough faculty and staff to offer the diverse curricular and co-curricular programs that its students need.
I know you feel blind-sided, and I know that many of you are angry, and I know that all of you are deeply grieved. So I’d encourage you to do three things:
- Let your voice be heard in the forums that Converse has provided.
- Grieve together. Life is rife with change, and we often need to grieve those changes.
- Educate yourself thoroughly before you form any final conclusions.
And then, if you are so inclined, step up and ask how you can help Converse survive and thrive to educate your daughters AND your sons. Ask how you can help the college maintain its commitment to empowering young women even as it broadens its mission.
And if you are not so inclined, I hope you’ll at least wish Converse well. Lots of institutions have changed and some are the better for it. I daresay, as my friend and former student Amy Cetone Vaz has pointed out, that a lot of alums of a lot of institutions initially believed that it might be better to close the doors of colleges before desegregating or before admitting women.
So that’s my two cents worth for what it’s worth. I know that many of you will disagree with me, but I hope you’ll at least educate yourselves on the complex situation facing your alma mater.
Educating young women at Converse has been the greatest privilege of my life (so farJ). And it grieves me deeply to think that Converse may have to begin admitting men to the regular undergraduate program. Many things about the college will change. But I believe that Converse has also done important work in educating generations of male graduate students, and I’m proud of that work, too. My former male students are also out there changing the world. I believe that Converse can continue educating good citizens for the future. But I have sadly concluded that Converse will have to change in order to do so.
And I am so proud of all of you for your impassioned commitment to making the world a better place.