What football game says about COVID-19, fate of small colleges

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Add to favorites
  • Email
  • Print
A local gospel quintet entertains Sterling residents on a recent Tuesday evening. Frank Morris photo

Kansas News Service

STERLING — There’s a lot riding on a kickoff set for 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12.

The
Sterling College Warriors are scheduled to take on the McPherson
College Bulldogs at home. If that familiar thud of shoe against football
and cheer from the stands doesn’t happen, the college that keeps the
central Kansas town’s economy humming, that gives it cultural vitality,
and that separates Sterling from the hollowing out that defines so many
other small Midwestern towns, might not survive.

The school, after
133 years, could die and doom the town that takes such pride in the
football squad and embraces the student body like family.

“If
COVID defeats the athletic season this year, it will probably defeat a
lot of small colleges,” said Jeb Miller, a non-traditional senior at
Sterling College. “And, as a result, harm a lot of small towns. Badly.”

Small town institutions

Hundreds
of small colleges dotting the country rely on students paying tens of
thousands of dollars a year in exchange for a distinctive, personal,
high-touch college experience.

Many of those colleges hung on
year-to-year even before the pandemic. Now COVID-19 threatens to cut off
the oxygen sustaining these schools, and the sports programs that drive
enrollment.

But the very thing small colleges need to stay afloat
— students coming in, spending money, playing sports — also poses a
major risk to relatively isolated little towns that, so far, have dodged
major coronavirus outbreaks.

Only about 2,200 people live in
Sterling out on the flat, flat plains of south-central Kansas. But this
small city boasts an almost idyllic downtown. New office buildings. Two
good coffee shops. A nice grocery store, a bowling alley, you name it.

Sterling
has good schools, competitive sports teams. Locals say school plays,
games and concerts draw big crowds. Without the college, the money,
diversity and energy that defines life in Sterling could evaporate
quickly.

“There is just so much overlap,” said Kyler Comley, a
Sterling College senior who’s lived in the town all his life. “The
community supports the college. The college supports the community. You
know, you just see how everything’s intertwined and how people are just
so overly giving and involved.”

Every student attending Sterling
College gets paired with a family in town. Those families speak
endearingly about their adopted scholars.

The students left in
March. Most haven’t come back. Like many people here, Sterling criminal
justice professor Mark Tremaine said that starting classes up again in
person this month is make or break for Sterling College.

“The
bottom line is, we’ve got to get students back to campus. If we’re going
to survive,” he said.“We have to accept whatever the risks are and do
it.”

And that’s the plan. Sterling doesn’t have much of a choice.

Staying alive

“We
have committed to open up in the fall,” Sterling College President
Scott Rich said. “With face to face classes, face-to-face coursework,
dorms and activities and full swing. But we’re committed to doing it
safely.”

Sterling College President Scot Rich. Frank Morris photo
Sterling College President Scot Rich. Frank Morris photo

Rich said the school will quarantine students coming back to the
dorms, test them liberally, and isolate those who come down sick in
local hotels.

Rich said the freshman class looks strong, with
about 200 new students. But he is desperately trying to woo 50 or so
upperclassmen who haven’t signed on this year. The school needs them
because, like many other small institutions, Sterling College scrapes by
from year to year.

“We’re always dependent upon enrollment,
always dependent upon that next year, always dependent upon persistence
or retention,” Rich said. “We have to get students to come back.”

Other small-town schools across the country, and the communities tied to their fate, face the same existential crisis.

“Some
of the people I know are looking at hundreds of colleges going out of
business within the next several years, if this pandemic continues and
if the economic devastation associated with it continues,” said Scott
Carlson with the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Small liberal arts
colleges have been shaky for years. Enrollments have slumped,
endowments have been drained. Many schools have piled on debt in a
building boom fueled by competition for students.

Most offer
courses online, but online classes don’t pay the bills. Small schools
survive only by providing an expensive, in-person college experience.
And Carlson said the pandemic shreds that business model, and threatens
to trigger the higher education equivalent of a mass extinction.

“It’s
kind of sad,” he said. “These colleges are unique, little entities all
on their own, and each one of them provides a unique spin on higher
education.”

‘Servant leadership’

Sterling College,
for instance, leans heavily on a particular interpretation of
Christianity. Guarding the front door of the classic, old limestone
building that anchors campus is a statue of Christ — not being tortured
on the cross, but humbly washing the feet of a disciple. “Servant
leadership,” as anyone here will tell you, guides the campus ethic.

But Jesus doesn’t keep the lights on here. Football does.

“We
do have a good football team,” said Sterling’s athletic director, Scott
Downing. “They’ve been fairly successful the last dozen years and been
to the national playoffs, won the conference championship.”

The team helps bring the students together, but more importantly, it drives enrollment.

“With
a football team number of about 125 to 135 student-athletes, quite a
bit of our student body is involved in that sport,” Downing said.

That’s
an understatement. There are only about 500 students on campus in a
given year, one in four is on the football team. And there are 20 other
sports.

The chance to play college sports is a major selling point
for schools like Sterling. It drives enrollment. But in a pandemic,
sports can be vectors for disease. And Jed Miller, who’s finishing his
degree at Sterling online next year, says that’s another vulnerability.

“If
COVID defeats the athletic season this year, it will probably defeat a
lot of small colleges,” he said. “And as a result, hurt a lot of small
towns … badly.”

So, the same colleges that keep some small towns vibrant now pose a particular threat to public health.

“The
college probably is the most dangerous element for us in terms of
COVID,” said Kristina Darnauer, a family practice doctor in Sterling.
“It potentially brings back students from all over the US who have
variable levels of exposure.”

Darnauer is torn. She loves
Sterling, loves the college, and fully appreciates how important it is
to the school and the town that college ramp almost as normal this fall.

But
she’s got patients to care for. And she said this county, with only one
hospital and no intensive care unit is not ready for a cluster of
coronavirus cases.

“If we have a huge outbreak,” Darnauer said, “we’re going to be out of resources very quickly.”

An aging note on a door at the University of Missouri Kansas City promises a speedy reopening. Frank Morris photo
An aging note on a door at the University of Missouri Kansas City promises a speedy reopening. Frank Morris photo

A new era

Small colleges and college towns across much of the country face the same worries.

But
some analysts say that a pruning of universities may prove inevitable,
and that the coronavirus has only sped up the thinning of the higher
education herd.

“I actually see the future of higher education,
broadly speaking, as entering a new golden age,” said Richard Price, a
research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. It’s a think tank
that presses for dramatic change in institutions.

Price said the
pandemic may hasten the evolution to better online classes, and a public
education system that’s much more accessible and equitable.

“The
traditional model, it was originally for the landed elite and it wasn’t
for all genders,” Price said. “It wasn’t for all races. And that is
slowly getting phased out along with some older business models that
aren’t pivoting well.”

And Price thinks many little colleges will
adapt. Lots of them have cheated death before. But he said there’s
little doubt that this time next year the United States will have many
fewer colleges. Folks in Sterling, Kansas, hope and, yes, pray, that
Sterling College is among the survivors.