Keene needs to help its college get back up off the mat, by John McGauley

If Keene State College were not here, we’d be Claremont or Berlin. I’ve said that many times.

Thirty-one years ago, I recall driving into Keene to start a new job, my young family staying back in Indiana until I could find housing here for us. It was a Saturday night in September and I drove down Winchester Street, although I hardly knew its name then. There were young people everywhere, haphazardly crossing the street. There was a festive air about the students; what campus doesn’t have that on Saturday night?

I’ve kept a close eye on Keene State College for three decades and here are my thoughts:

The city residents, and the city government, should do everything they can to hold on dearly to Keene State and make sure the institution prospers. A small city with a college has a huge advantage over anyplace else of a similar size without one. Companies come and go; a college is about as close to forever as we can get on this earth. With rare exceptions, they never go out of business, especially public ones.

Almost all of us, upon meeting people from anywhere else in the country, know this phrase: “Keene … Keene … I’ve heard of that place. There’s a college there, right?”

Keene State is our only national identifier.

Having said that, I don’t think residents of this city understand, realize or acknowledge the college has fallen on very rough times. Since 2011, its enrollment has plummeted by 33 percent. It was a big school back then, with an enrollment of 5,846 students. Its then-president Helen Giles-Gee was quoted in a press release as saying “Even in a difficult economy, Keene State’s reputation is attracting students from the New England region and around the country at record rates.”

Its future, though, turned out to be anything but. According to the latest statistics on the college published by U.S. News and World Report, Keene State enrolls 3,780, a loss of more than 2,000 students. Unfortunately, too, is that U.S. News also rates the college as “less selective” and that it accepts 83 percent of all those who apply. Amherst College in Massachusetts accepts only 14 percent of its applicants. Granted, that’s not a fair comparison, but gives you a baseline.

Now, there’s probably a hundred reasons for this catastrophic loss, including formidable demographic trends. Some other colleges nationally have suffered losses, too, but Keene State’s is especially deep. But other colleges have done well, including Keene State’s sister school, Plymouth State University, which has an enrollment up slightly from 2011.

Ironically, this steep decline has occurred at the same time as the college has expanded in terms of buildings and facilities. Thirty years ago, it didn’t look nearly as good as it does now. There are new dormitories, academic buildings and a new student center. Its footprint is bigger.

The place looks outstanding. It shines.

So why the crisis?

Like I said, there are probably a hundred reasons, and there are probably a lot of people pointing fingers, looking to blame something or someone. Perhaps poor presidential leadership throughout the years, wrongheaded marketing or simply a series of misguided decisions.

Ever since I arrived here, it’s always struck me that there is a weird disconnect between Keene State College and Keene. I don’t mean City Hall, but the lower-case city — the people who live here. It’s as if the two live separate lives in the same place, like roommates who really aren’t that close.

I’m not talking about the riot there during the 2014 Pumpkin Festival, which garnered national publicity. It precedes that. We’re a “college town” without hardly the feel of one.

Keene State College presidents throughout the previous decades were arguably pretty much invisible as far as Keene went, I’ve thought. Want evidence? Ask the next five people you meet to name any one of them.

They have a newly inaugurated president, Melinda Treadwell, and she seems to show promise. She was thrown into an impossible situation as an interim president during a dire time, and comported herself well.

My estimate is that it’s going to take a decade for the college to get back up off the mat. There are no quick-fix solutions, and if they try them, they’ll fail. Somehow, they’ve got to figure out how to better attract young people from Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, states that have always been robust feeders for them.

And, they have to go further in a direction where they may be headed into already: education geared toward careers.

Now, I understand that Keene State has for many years identified itself as a public “liberal arts” institution. Fine. But that’s not where the world’s going now, nor has it for the past three decades. It’s fine for Amherst College to remain a pristine liberal arts college, for it has outstanding cachet and a multi-billion-dollar endowment down in the engine room. Keene State College? Not so much.

The other part of the equation is that the city of Keene, lower and upper case, and Keene State College, should team up to be closer. Both need each other, for very important reasons. Keene State brings talent to town, provides jobs and often is the springboard to prosperity. Keene State needs the city as part of its draw for prospective students and faculty. The appearance of the city has a huge impact on the first impressions on the thousands of high school students and their parents who show up here to look the place over. Enrollment people will tell you first impressions often are the only things that matter.

Maybe this would be a start: a thousand people in Keene contact a relative with a high-school kid and ask them to think about applying to Keene State and driving up here to take a look at the place.

John McGauley, an author and local radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at mcgauleyink@gmail.com

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