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How small private colleges in the Tri-State plan to survive and thrive in the shifting higher ed landscape

Thomas More University

Higher education is changing. This year alone, large colleges throughout Ohio announced plans to cut spending by eliminating degree programs in response to declining enrollment numbers and other budget constraints.

But it's not just the big schools. Across the country, small schools, including community colleges and private institutions, are facing their own challenges. In Ohio, Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville paused its enrollment in the face of financial struggles. Two weeks ago, Notre Dame College in Cleveland, a private school with more than 100 years of history, announced it would close at the end of the spring semester, joining the growing list of private colleges that have decided to shutter in the last year.

The cuts and closures of the past year have painted a grim picture for the future of higher education. But not everybody's ready to throw in the towel just yet.

Wilmington College is a small Quaker-affiliated college in Wilmington, Ohio, with around 1,000 students. It says it's taking steps to shift its approach and appeal to more students.

Today, many students are pursuing degrees in business, finance, and science and engineering. But at Wilmington, agriculture remains its highest enrolled major.

Statistics from Wilmington College's Office of Institutional Effectiveness show enrollment at the school has been declining over the past several years. Last year, the institution reported a negative net income of more than $4 million after boasting a positive net income in the two previous years.

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Newly appointed President Corey Cockerill, who worked at Wilmington for 16 years before taking over the top job, says leaders at the school took notice and decided to shift gears.

While serving as interim president, Cockerill hired a financial consultant to offer a few solutions. The consultant told Cockerill and the college's board they didn't have a spending problem, they had a revenue problem.

In response, Wilmington College decided to put its efforts into new and refreshed academic offerings, like its prison education program, which offers in-person courses inside local correctional institutions, allowing incarcerated people to earn degrees while behind bars using funding from Pell Grants.

Wilmington is also adding new degrees in sports nutrition, logistics and supply chain management, public health, and cyber security. Cockerill says these programs will help the school adapt as students' interests change.

"We've analyzed the job market and are leaning into these as a way to expand our undergraduate programming," Cockerill told WVXU.

While business, technology, and science degrees are taking center stage at Wilmington and other schools, Cockerill says the college still incorporates liberal arts and the humanities into these degree programs to keep the arts alive and thriving as much as possible even though they often see fewer students enrolled them.

"It's really important to us," the president said.

Other institutions agree on the importance of maintaining the liberal arts in higher education, but some say colleges need to put a bigger emphasis on these programs to retain their school's identity and remain financially healthy in the decades to come.

RELATED: Miami University reveals details about its plan to eliminate and combine majors

President Joseph Chillo from Thomas More University, just south of Cincinnati in Crestview Hills, Ky., says he's unsettled by the changes bigger schools are making to their degree offerings.

At Thomas More, business degrees reign supreme, but Chillo says keeping the liberal arts running at full steam is essential to developing well-rounded students who will become stronger candidates once they enter the job market even though those programs currently don't have a ton of students enrolled.

"Purely from a major standpoint, you're going to sit here and say, 'Joe, why do you have a philosophy major with five students in it?'" Chillo said. "I think there's a short-sightedness in terms of going after what I think are the obvious ways of thinking that you're going to save money. Cutting academic programs, cutting faculty does not save you money in the long-term."

Chillo points to the importance of the relationship between students and educators as justification for this thinking. While other colleges are trimming programs and hiring more part-time instructors over full-time ones, Thomas More wants to hold on to its full-time staff so students can build a stronger connection with instructors and stay at the college to pursue their degrees.

Both Chillo and Cockrill agree that incorporating the arts and humanities into other academic programs will play a key role in the survival of small institutions in the years to come.

When the arts disappear elsewhere, smaller institutions say they want to be a landing place for students looking for a close community and a well-rounded college education.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.