“We have to think about the next phase for Colby-Sawyer,” said Deborah Taylor, dean of faculty. “Over our history, we’ve been a co-ed academy, a three-year college for women, a four-year college for women, a full co-ed college. We’ve been flexible and adaptable, and that is essential for the ongoing health of an educational institution.”

Colby-Sawyer officials have no plans to cut back on classroom teaching for their 1,400 students inside the school’s own walls — some of which are, indeed, ivy-covered.

The move online comes because officials know the economic reality for small colleges in the Northeast: They have to expand their audience or face trouble.

“This will allow us to serve new groups of students that we couldn’t serve at all in the past — working adults, people at some distance,” Taylor said. “We know the demographic issues.”

Local student shortage

The problem for schools such as Colby-Sawyer, which lack the global prestige of the Ivy League yet carry more expenses than two-year or urban colleges, is that the number of high school graduates in New Hampshire and other New England states is declining. This group, their core market, peaked in 2007 and is projected to keep shrinking for at least five more years.

Add worries about school loans and debt loads, and it gets harder to attract students to a college that has tuition of $38,000 a year, plus $12,000 for room and board.

Further, Colby-Sawyer isn’t that rich. The school endowment is around $34 million, which is nothing to sneeze at, but isn’t a huge cushion for an institution with an annual budget of $67 million. It remains heavily dependent on tuition income.

A Forbes magazine analysis of the financial health of 900 four-year private schools, weighing factors such as rate of investment return and dependence on tuition income, gave Colby-Sawyer only a C-minus, about average nationwide.

That’s compared with an A-plus for Dartmouth College, which has an endowment of $3.7 billion, and a B for Rivier University in Nashua.

The magazine gave D grades to Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, which has cut back programs and staff in the last year, and New England College, formerly Henniker College. For-profit schools such as Daniel Webster College in Nashua and public schools such as the University of New Hampshire weren’t part of the analysis.

The specter hanging over everybody is Chester College, which shut in 2012 after 50 years because of debts and stagnant tuition income, along with Atlantic Union College near Worcester, Mass., which closed in 2011 after 129 years for similar reasons.

Daniel Webster College also was in financial trouble when it was bought by ITT Educational Services in 2009.

That’s also the sort of pressure that can lead to innovation.

(Next page: The promise of online learning)

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