Maria Amodeo cringed when she ran into her biology professor on the quad at Emmanuel College, where patches of snow covered the hard ground on a bright but cold winter day.

“Did you get my email?” she asked. “I think you’re going to kill me.”

Amodeo, a 21-year-old senior majoring in biology, with a concentration in health science and a minor in chemistry, had accepted a job as a research technician at one of the world’s preeminent cancer centers, a few blocks away, instead of taking an offer from the top-rated hospital at which the professor has had a long affiliation.

“I’m not going to kill you,” he responded, laughing and congratulating her.

The exchange spoke to the personal attention enjoyed by students on small campuses like this one, where bells still ring the hour. Enrollment is less than 2,000, and there’s a 13:1 ratio of students to faculty. A higher-than-average proportion of students graduate on time.

But the 100-year-old Catholic liberal arts college, which was once all-women, also exemplifies the kind of institution increasingly threatened by financial, demographic, competitive and other pressures — and what such schools are doing to remain in business.

Other institutions “are hoping to wait out the shakeout and see some of their competitors close their doors,” said Todd Leach, former chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire and former chair of the New England Board of Higher Education. “But that is not a strategy that works in a market that’s declining as fast as ours is. You have to really make serious structural changes.”

Emmanuel has experience with making those kinds of changes. The college, whose name in Hebrew means “God with us,” has stared down mortality before under the leadership of a long-serving president and treasurer, both nuns, who have come up with the sorts of survival strategies that many schools are scrambling to figure out.

“I believe that we have the spirit and the wherewithal to move forward if we keep listening carefully and adapting to what we’re hearing,” said Sister Janet Eisner, who has been president since 1979 and who, at a sprightly 80, is the fifth-longest-serving college president, and longest-serving woman, still in office.

Eisner, who graduated from Emmanuel in 1963, said she meets with her top managers every week “to make sure that we are in sync watching this. You know, what’s the trend?”

Lately many trends affecting small colleges like this one have been particularly worrying.

Emmanuel’s undergraduate enrollment fell 14% last fall compared to the fall of 2019, to 1,775 students, after the college decided to go virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened for in-person classes this semester, but fewer than half of its students are back on campus.

Nationwide, the number of freshmen fell by an unprecedented 13.1% in the fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and undergraduate enrollment overall was down by more than 560,000 students.

This 18-story residence hall at Emmanuel College was open for a little more than a year and a half before the Covid-19 shutdowns hit.
Meredith Nierman/GBH News The Hechinger Report

Empty dorms and dining halls cost Emmanuel $12 million in forgone revenue last semester alone, on top of $4.5 million in refunds from the previous spring, according to financial information it provided, though it recouped some of those losses by cutting costs. In all, Emmanuel's revenue will have dropped from $107 million in the year ending last June to $93 million this year, the college projects.

Nationwide, COVID-19 could cost higher education more than $180 billion, according to research conducted by the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Even without the pandemic, Emmanuel is facing a significant challenge. It draws nearly 90% of its enrollment from Massachusetts and the rest of New England, a region in which the number of high school students has been falling.

Nationwide, the number of college-age Americans will begin declining after 2025, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education projects, further reducing the supply of prospective customers for which admissions offices everywhere will be competing.

The Moody’s bond-rating agency lowered Emmanuel’s credit outlook in January from stable to negative, citing $185 million in outstanding debt, much of it borrowed to build an 18-story apartment-style residence hall that was open for a little more than a year and a half before the pandemic shutdowns hit. Moody’s also cited the “highly competitive market” for students, made worse during the economic downturn the pandemic triggered, constraining some families’ ability to pay.

Maria Amodeo, a senior at Emmanuel College, will begin a job as a research technician at one of the world’s preeminent cancer centers, a few blocks away, when she graduates.
Meredith Nierman/GBH News The Hechinger Report

How competitive is the market? Amodeo remembered being surprised as a high school senior to receive personal calls from colleges she’d applied to and “constant emails. A lot of emails.”

“It is a little bit weird of a position to be in,” she said of the intensive outreach. “That was not something that I expected.”

Recruiting from this shrinking pool of students requires more than individual appeals, though. It takes ever-growing piles of financial aid.

Emmanuel is one of a growing number of four-year institutions where no first-year student pays the full price, federal figures show. The college will essentially be discounting tuition for the students who start in the fall by 61%, said Sister Anne Mary Donovan, chief financial officer and treasurer and, like Eisner, a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. She called that percentage “just God-awful.” Full tuition, room and board this year is $61,813.

Private universities and colleges nationwide gave back an average of nearly 53% of their tuition revenue in the form of discounts and financial aid to full-time freshmen, according to the most recent available figures from the National Association of College and University Business Officers, data that date from before the pandemic.

“The students are incredibly savvy about bringing us an offer they got from some competing college. And, you know, ‘Can you match this?'"\ Donovan said. She said the practice is not sustainable. “Oh, no. God, no. It certainly is not.”

Despite such generosity, early data show that applications to small and less-selective colleges are sluggish for the upcoming fall. Although the Common App, a shared application accepted by more than 900 colleges and universities, reports a jump in the total number of applications submitted this year, the numberdeclined at the smallest schools and grew more slowly at the least selective ones.

By this measure, Emmanuel appears to be doing comparatively well — it said that its applications for the fall rose 11%. The college hugely benefits from the location of its campus, which straddles Boston’s resurgent Fenway neighborhood and Longwood Medical and Academic Area, near some of the world’s best hospitals and research centers. There’s hardly any sign of the college itself in its promotional video, which instead follows a group of happy students as they make their way around the famous landmarks nearby. In the student center there’s a bank of tourist brochures similar to the kind usually found in hotel lobbies.

That 17-acre campus has repeatedly proved Emmanuel’s salvation. That’s because it’s some of the most valuable real estate in New England, worth $276 million, according to the most recent available financial audit.

In 1974, with enrollment so low Donovan said the college couldn’t meet its payroll, Emmanuel sold off a parcel to a neighboring hospital. Men-only universities, including several that were Catholic, had gone coed, and all-women colleges like Emmanuel had seen their applications plummet.

“By the early ’90s, you could not convince a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old young woman that it was really great to go to a single-sex college,” Eisner said.

To lower costs, Eisner gathered her fellow presidents from four other Fenway-area colleges in 1996 and proposed that they pool their programs and share course offerings, research labs, dining halls, fitness facilities, libraries, emergency management and other resources.

“It took a little while,” Eisner said, sitting at the same conference table where the agreement was negotiated, in a room with watercolors of Boston scenes hanging on the walls. But “we benefitted because we needed each other, and then we got stronger.”

The consortium that became known as the Colleges of the Fenway — a sixth school joined in 1999 — would eventually be copied by other clusters of colleges around the country.

It didn’t solve Emmanuel’s enrollment problems, though.

By 2000, the number of students had fallen to about 600, and the college took another big step: It decided to enroll men.

Doing that required leveraging another corner of the favorably situated campus, which Emmanuel leased to the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. for 75 years for $50 million, which paid for new dorms to house the male students who began to show up in 2001.

Merck’s 12-story glass-walled research lab now towers over the mostly low-rise, predominantly brick campus. Students can intern at Merck there, as Amodeo did. The college would later lease another building to a nearby hospital as research space.

Long known for training teachers, Emmanuel started to expand its science and health programs to connect its students with the cutting-edge research and medical establishments in the neighborhood. It added neuroscience and biostatistics, for example. It monitored what high school students said they wanted to study, and what national employment reports showed were the jobs in most demand. Emmanuel’s top undergraduate majors are now in science and health, edging out the humanities and social sciences.

The college built a $50 million science center, which it finished even after the last recession threatened to interrupt the project. In the fall, it began an undergraduate nursing program, after building pricey state-of-the-art simulators and labs with animated “patients” that can move, talk and exhibit symptoms. It launched new programs in high-demand fields, including marketing, criminology and criminal justice, migration studies and global and public health.

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Emmanuel College has expanded science and health programs that connect its students with nearby hospitals. One program is undergraduate nursing, taught in new labs with animated “patients” that can move, talk and exhibit symptoms.
Meredith Nierman/GBH News The Hechinger Report

Emmanuel bought back the piece of its campus it had sold off in 1974 to build a new high-rise dorm, but hedged its bets by leasing 250 of the beds for 12 years to Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, another member of the Colleges of the Fenway.

“We adapt,” Eisner said. “We look at what’s going on in our environment. We reflect on it. And we have adapted, over and over.”

The college’s small size helps it propel nearly 60% of its students to graduate within four years, higher than the national average of 45%.

Emmanuel also recognized another change among students and their parents, who once took on faith that a college education would pay off but now demand to know exactly what they’re getting for their money.

“It’s forced us to be much more clear on who we are and who our students are,” and show them what jobs they can get with a degree, said Josef Kurtz, chief academic officer. "Being able to communicate those outcomes back to a freshman [and] saying, ‘Hey, listen, here’s someone who graduated just two years ago. Look at what they’re doing. You can do that, too.’ We want them to see that what they’re learning in the classroom actually will have value when they graduate.”

Many challenges persist. Men still make up less than a quarter of enrollment. Emmanuel has managed to enroll only a tiny number of graduate students, and almost none from abroad. (Both are major cash cows for other higher education institutions.) Almost all of its undergraduates come straight from the dwindling ranks of high school graduates, at a time when the growth market is in retraining older-than-traditional-age students. And one of the other Colleges of the Fenway, financially troubled Wheelock College, was taken over by Boston University, which laid off most of Wheelock's faculty and staff.

The collapse of neighboring Wheelock “sent a little shockwave” through students at Emmanuel, said Matt King, a senior double-majoring in math and economics. “There was a little bit of talk among myself and friends about like, ‘Oh, what if BU bought us out? What would that look like for us?’ ”

Many small colleges report that prospective applicants are asking about their solvency. More than 500 schools showed signs of financial problems even before the pandemic, according to the Financial Fitness Tracker produced by The Hechinger Report using federal data. More than 50 have closed or merged in the last five years. The state Department of Higher Education warned in March that another small Massachusetts college, Becker, may not have enough cash to stay open.

But Emmanuel “will survive,” Donovan said. “And I would not have said that to you in the early ’90s. I mean, I felt terrible [back then] asking people for money, given the shape that I knew we were in financially.”

The chapel at Emmanuel College, a small, Catholic college in Boston. “Sometimes the way we manage, I think it’s only because the Holy Spirit is guiding us,” the college’s chief financial officer said.
Meredith Nierman/GBH News The Hechinger Report

There’s a simple reason Emmanuel’s credit rating fell this year, she said: “because the higher ed industry is just in a mess.” Donovan said the downgrade won’t have much of an impact, since she has no additional plans to borrow.

Infusions of cash from those land deals and other tactical repositioning has left the college in a good place at a time when many of its counterparts are wobbling, she said, though Donovan acknowledged the magnitude of what they’re up against.

“Sometimes the way we manage, I think it’s only because the Holy Spirit is guiding us.”

This story was a collaboration with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.