To the Anna Maria College Community,

As the proud president of Anna Maria College, I am compelled to offer some thoughts on the recent headlines concerning higher education. In an era where the echoes of skepticism surrounding the value of a college degree grow louder, Anna Maria profoundly shapes the destinies of those who defy circumstances and aspire to serve others. Anna Maria stands as a testament to the vital role played by small private colleges in shaping the future of our nation.

College presidents, once champions of intellectual inquiry across prestigious campuses, are tripping over measured pronouncements and largely failing in their attempts to navigate the storm of current events. Through their unintended missteps, the American higher education elite has regrettably sparked renewed momentum to the absurd assertions by many loud voices who question the value of a college degree. While this negativity stresses all higher education, the greatest damage will fall on the institutions at the heart of so many communities – America’s small private colleges.

Unlike our affluent counterparts, most of the approximately 1,300 private colleges with student populations under 5,000 are not defined by decorative facades and historical pedigree. Our grandeur lies in the stories we weave – stories of students defying circumstance, of first-generation legacies being born, and of diverse voices discovering their commonalities. At Anna Maria College, 42% of our fall 2023 class rely on Pell Grants, the lifeline for countless deserving individuals, and 33% are trailblazers as first- generation college attendees. Like many of our small college peers, we are a campus of many ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and lived experiences. We are a microcosm of America in all its vibrant complexity and strength.

Our student body is not a statistic; it is the beating heart of our mission. And our mission is not simply to impart knowledge; it is to ignite potential. Largely overlooked by thought leaders and influencers, small institutions focus their finite resources on educating students and supporting them through personalized attention. These colleges are adept at guiding students who might have been overwhelmed by the bureaucratic predispositions of larger institutions. With classes intimate and professors accessible, small college campuses are not unlike a typical neighborhood street, where people know and look out for one another. Here, the shy first-year student blossoms in a seminar, the single mother finds the support to pursue her degree, and the immigrant youth discovers their voice in a safe and inclusive space.

Mission and values are embedded throughout the college experience, so students learn that the making of a good and responsible life involves a commitment to one’s community. Then as graduates, alumni make communities stronger and more livable – serving in core roles as nurses and healthcare workers, public safety professionals, social workers, teachers, and businesspeople. Look around! You could not run a business, a hospital, or even a city if you subtracted all the small college alumni from the American workforce.

Yet, the fuel that drives this student transformation is scarce. Most small colleges must navigate a constant financial tightrope. We fight for every penny, stretching each dollar to ensure our students receive a quality education and have access to the resources they deserve. A single large donation, a sum that might be a mere rounding error in an elite university’s budget, can be a seismic shift for a small college. It can mean the difference between a student dropping out or graduating, scholarships for students who dream of a college education but lack the financial means, cutting-edge technology in our labs, or new learning spaces that foster collaboration. We are experienced at being nimble and maximizing the impact of every dollar. Ivy League ivory towers rarely crumble, so when skeptics question the value of earning a college degree or condemn college administrators, it is the small institutions that experience the repercussions.

The cynicism over education stands in contrast to our country’s founders and to the missions of so many small colleges that were established to expand educational access as the surest path toward success.

America must continue to be a place where hopes are nurtured, future generations are given greater opportunities than previous ones, learning is embraced, and advancing one’s education is a point of pride and not ridicule. Small colleges are the champions of both opportunity and second chances – the makings of the American dream. Investing in a small college is not just a financial contribution; it’s a vote of confidence in a future where education is not a privilege reserved for the few.

I welcome your feedback and support.

President Mary Lou Retelle