Collegia, Memento Mori

Nathan Allen
8 min readDec 29, 2020

The honeymoon is over. The hundreds of middling private colleges that rose with the tide of mid-century academic hubris and financial incentive disconnected from reality are headed for the abattoir now that the bucolic oak-wall’d interstice is considered luxury and not necessity.

this won’t end well. (source:

Perhaps ironically, the same route to university growth since the 1950s is now a death march. By betraying their individuality for the vague homogeneity of global education, colleges made their services and thus their existence fungible.[1] The effective educational difference between most of the 1700+ 4-year U.S. colleges is negligible, so matriculation decisions are increasingly determined by price or convenience or, occasionally, some vague promise of the brand. Small private colleges, incapable of competing on price and having long lost whatever made them unique, have discovered that homogeneity has rendered them mortal.

Drew University (Madison, NJ) is a prime example of the impending cull.[2] Drew’s applications have declined by almost 40% over the last decade. It typically admits over 70% of applicants, which means it is admitting nearly every qualified applicant. Its yield is dreadfully below 20%, which means most of those who are admitted aren’t buying Drew’s value proposition.[3] This situation is compounded by all the debt most colleges carry, as ratings agencies move that debt into junk territory, investors keep their distance, obligations are called, the end draws closer.[4] There are a few hundred Drews, and the rising tide of mediocrity will soon swallow many.[5]

And so, what is to be done?

First, admit you have a problem. If middling and over-priced offend, then enjoy insolvency. For Drew, the most notable failure is the presidency of Tom Kean (1990–2005). Sure, he improved the balance sheet, but he failed to achieve the single success that would have mattered: build the brand.

Note: “brand” is a terrible term to use (but I will) because most don’t understand it; there’s a significant difference between corporate and institutional brands, and if you don’t know the difference, then you’ll end up competing on price with the local State U. and community college — a competition you’ll always lose.

Why a brand?

Brand provides pricing leverage, which every private college, by definition, requires. And brand is a force-multiplier for marketing. For colleges, you basically have two choices: hyper-local or not. (The not is usually regional).

And Drew was a hyper-local brand when Kean took office; you couldn’t go more than three WaWas away until people starting asking “what’s Drew?” Drew remains a hyper-local brand. Kean, with his stature as a popular former governor, had the opportunity to move the needle. The needle held its position.

Hyper-local means brand reaches not much beyond a few dozen miles from campus — every mile beyond that costs an increasingly greater number of marketing dollars.[6] Hyper-local colleges depend on price optimization and the market value of majors; private colleges lose that battle to local state-subsidized colleges. Most small colleges are hyper-local, and they’re getting killed on value.

Small colleges that build strong brands are usually regional (Pomona, W&L), but that’s more than enough to sustain most. Kean failed to expand the brand, hence the problems at Drew today.

(On a desktop, this image occupies most of the screen yet isn’t clickable. Is everyone asleep at the wheel?)

This is not how to build a brand.

The key to brand-building isn’t the consultant-produced over-workshopped pitch but rather the pitch that gets repeated once you leave the room. You must get the people you’re not paying to repeat your pitch.

“Drew’s launch path for success guarantees purpose-driven, experience-based career readiness for every student, steeped in a connection to a lifelong, worldwide community,” said no normal person in a normal environment ever. No high school junior has ever repeated those words at lunch. No mom has ever recited that value-prop at dinner with friends. The only people who would repeat those words are the consultants billing you too much. (Also, fire the consultants.[7] They’ve created the same pitch for a dozen other colleges, which essentially devalues your brand. So yes, you’ve paid to devalue your brand. I’m guessing that wasn’t the objective.)

Prospects also view, according to Several of these schools will be walking the green mile over the next decade.**

Build your brand on something you can actually do well, perhaps even uniquely well. People pay for great experiences, which is what Apple knows. So: how to be the Apple of colleges?

The first observation is that the answer is most certainly not to add majors. If one wanted an all-you-can-eat buffet of mediocre (but seemingly useful) majors, one usually enrolls at the local state or community college. The cousin of “useful” is “price-sensitive,” and no such student is matriculating at Drew. You’re an expensive private college, not Sizzler.

The focus on “useful” will get you nowhere. (Back to Apple: Windows phone focused on useful and look what happened to that; the first Apple shipped without a copy/paste function. One promised utility and the other experience.)

Thought experiment.

Maximum majors is a mistake for a private college, so let’s look at the opposite end. Imagine if Drew only had one major. Seventy professors, some of the best, but only one major. Imagine it’s not even a “useful” major — English Literature. Now, if you’re a high school junior who loves reading literature, you’ve got an obvious destination. Even if you got into Harvard, you’d think you’re missing something by not attending Drew. (You’d still go to Harvard, but there’d be pangs.) Drew only needs 500 new matriculations each year; you think there are 500 students who would respond to that?

Instead, Drew has something like 50 majors. I’m not sure how many full-time undergraduate faculty Drew has, but my guess is that they may have fewer than two such faculty per major. This is absurd. Forget about the obviously inane pseudo-useful majors (no one wants to major in accounting and thinks of Drew), but anthropology? Gender studies? No one majors in those.[8]

what an a.d.d.-inspired mess of messaging.

One of the great mistakes of smaller colleges (and colleges in general) is pursuing the Sizzler solution for education; no college will be all things for all students, and the more you try to be, the more you will fail. So, start deleting majors. (Also, start deleting admin positions. Seriously, what it this? You’ve made the classic error of bloated admin to compliment bloated majors amidst declining matriculation.)

If you nail a niche, the brand builds itself. Perhaps more importantly, nailing a niche speaks to potential donors.[9] Yes, vague generalizations may speak to all donors but not sufficiently enough for them to give enough. A strong focus will animate the right donors (think: Hillsdale).

Any small college hoping to achieve financial escape velocity must remove itself from the homogeneity of modern college education, the unthinking hiring of the same professors and offering the same courses as everyone else. Students know they can get the same everywhere, and that’s why Drew has a <20% yield.

typical Drew faculty page … feel the small, caring community…. gormless products of the higher-ed factory are available elsewhere for less. (this is the “department head”)

Obviously Drew could focus on other areas that one associates with small private colleges, such as a personal, caring environment. Looking at Drew’s website, I get accosted by dozens of facts and slogans written in substance-free buzzwords, but I don’t find the potency of community or experience.[10] Faculty and course pages read like they do at any college, most of which are less expensive. If you treat your courses and faculty as fungible undifferentiated pieces — and that’s what they look like online — then applicants will treat Drew as a fungible undifferentiated college that just costs more.

The fount of such introspection must be some confection of creativity and conviction — and you can’t outsource conviction. Perhaps your consultants did some sort of SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). Throw it out. You have no strengths. Being near New York City is not a strength because half of your competition is near NYC, and the other half is near Boston. And then there’s Hobart, but really, “near NYC” isn’t the strength you think it is. See your balance sheet for evidence. Or Saint Elizabeth’s, the college (literally) down the street from Drew that’s been teetering on death for a decade.

The next president has two requirements: creativity and donor network contacts. Creativity means not being stuck in the 20th century college model, which means having a PhD is probably a liability. And regarding donor networks: there’s a lot of money out there, and much of it flows to universities unaffiliated with the donor. The next president must be familiar with these dynamics. Drew needs a whale.

In the final analysis, Drew is caught in the vicissitudes of history.[11] The chances of Drew finding the right president are slim. The chances such a person would take the job are slimmer.


** Muhlenberg’s Wikipedia claims that “About one-third (32%) of applicants were offered admission for the 2016–2017 academic year,” but its own CDS says the admit rate was closer to 50% for that year ( and over 60% as of 2018. It would be weird if Muhlenberg didn’t monitor their Wikipedia page but, of course, there’s no way they’d let such an error persist, right?

And no, I have no idea why I’m writing on Drew. Emblematic, I suppose.

[1] No, Hampshire and Bennington aren’t “unique.” They offer the same lame courses as everyone else does. Most colleges are like Taco Bell, rearranging the same few ingredients as many ways as possible, and then spending all their money on marketing to convince people that their Bacon Club Chalupa Sociology major is somehow unique. Your pathetic yield reveals that people know your chalupa departments are the same as everyone else’s.



[4] Tax returns:

“Moody’s Investors Service released a report in September predicting closures and mergers among small colleges will rise in the next few years.”

[5] “Rising tide of mediocrity” lifted from 1983’s ed report “A Nation at Risk,” which warned that mediocrity was becoming the accepted norm in education. See

[6] If you’re hyper-local, then articles like this don’t help because your prospects all see them:

[7] or, perhaps? Apparently you paid A&S almost $600k for some homogenizing misguidance. Going to request a refund?

[8] I haven’t the slightest idea if this is actually true at Drew. I just know it’s generally true. See

[9] I seem to recall that Drew was once known for its theater program. I’m not sure this is still true, but after spending a few minutes on Drew’s website, I wouldn’t know about Drew’s theater program if I didn’t already know.

[10] Look up departments on their directory — — I looked up Art and Anthropology. The majority of faculty don’t even have photos.

[11] (“Enrollment doubled in 1990. [But due to economic decline], rather than come to us, our student population was choosing less expensive programs at city and state community colleges.”)