Tom Brady once saved this tiny college. Can it still survive?

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Pine Manor College suffers from low enrollment, high debt and a small endowment.

Pine Manor College suffers from low enrollment, high debt and a small endowment. 

Kirk Carapezza/WGBH 

Just like a patient, a college has certain vital signs that show it might be in bad health. Two of those vital signs are a small endowment and low enrollment, and Pine Manor College just outside of Boston suffers from both.

The college, founded in 1911, enjoys beautiful wooded acres in Chestnut Hill, just west of Boston. The campus is smaller after New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his supermodel wife, Gisele Bündchen, bought a chunk of the land two years ago for their manse, a carriage house and yoga studio. 

For a long time, Pine Manor was a finishing school — a place for wealthy, white debutantes. Today, the four-year private school serves a very different population — predominantly black and Latino men and women, many of them low-income. Pine Manor's six-year graduation rate is just 34 percent and the college only has about 400 students, which makes each student critical.

“What we’re trying to do is maintain a diverse student body and have individuals who are better prepared academically and who have a better ability to pay,” says President Joseph Lee.

Pine Manor President Joseph Lee openly admits the small liberal arts college faces a host of challenges.

Finding students who can pay isn’t easy. Since the Great Recession, family incomes have stagnated, and recruiting talented students able to afford Pine Manor’s $36,000-a-year sticker price is a challenge. To get more students in the door, Pine Manor is basically throwing financial aid at students, trying to persuade them to enroll. Going forward, President Lee said the college must lower its discount rate, which is north of 50 percent, and is not financially sustainable. (Update: The college announced on July 15 that Lee would be stepping down.)

Pine Manor’s endowment is just $10 million. The Brady-Bündchen couple helped with the bottom line, reportedly paying $4.5 million for the some of the campus, according to Boston's WBZ-TV. But the sale has not solved the overall cash flow and enrollment problem that Pine Manor and many small schools face. 

As demand has dwindled, the number of private colleges that exclusively offer undergraduate liberal arts degrees has fallen from 220 in 1990 to about 100 today.

Related: Are liberal arts colleges losing the public debate? A conversation with former Bucknell University president Brian Mitchell:

Most schools are fine, but Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, said the closing of Virginia's Sweet Briar College this past March has shocked the industry because the school closed before it had to.

"Usually when a college closes, it's been on its deathbed for years and they're down to a very small number of students and you sort ofnow it's coming,” Jaschik says.

What should concern small liberal arts schools like Pine Manor, Jaschik added, is that Sweet Briar’s Board of Trustees looked at long-term enrollment trends and decided it couldn’t recover, even though the school had a $90 million endowment.

Bill Vogele teaches political science at Pine Manor. He’s optimistic, although he admitted he’s been following the Sweet Briar story closely.

“Every story on Sweet Briar, I’m reading it because it does tell us something about the way the country is changing," Vogele says. "It’s a tough environment.”

Jaschik says that if these private liberal arts colleges go out of business, it could lead to greater social inequality, where the US is left with top-tier private schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and underfunded public schools, but few options in between.

“In all sorts of ways in higher education right now I do worry about the rich having a lot more opportunity than low-income students do,” he says.

Families who’ve traditionally supported and benefited from schools like Pine Manor could suffer the most.

This story was produced by On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.