Campus Exodus: Barely half of freshmen at Virginia's Ferrum College return for their sophomore year. Credit: Matt Connolly. Credit:

As far as you can tell by just walking around its campus, Ferrum is a typical small, private, residential liberal arts college. Founded by Methodists in 1913, it sits on 700 bucolic acres bordering a pretty lake in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwest Virginia. Many of its students will tell you that they are at least satisfied with the campus life Ferrum offers, which includes small class sizes, majors in thirty-three different fields, some sixty clubs, and a vibrant sports culture anchored by its Division III football team, the Panthers.

Yet by many important measures, Ferrum ranks among the worst colleges in America. Its students borrow more, default on their loans more, and graduate less than do students at almost all other comparable institutions. Ferrum proves that you can’t judge schools just by appearances, and that even low-quality schools have fans.

A first cautionary statistic about Ferrum is the large number of students who leave. Barely half of its freshmen remain for more than a year. Partly this reflects the school’s liberal admissions policy. It accepts more than 90 percent of all applicants, and the entering class has a high school grade point average of just 2.75, meaning that many students arrive on campus poorly prepared. About a third of the student body is African American, and 4 percent is Hispanic.

Many are also the first in their families to go to college. “A lot of them go back home,” says Ferrum spokeswoman Kym Davis. “They don’t think to go back to college.” Yet there are other private nonprofit liberal arts colleges, such as Albertus Magnus College in New Haven or Nyack College in New York, that have similar student demographics and do a better job holding down dropout rates and producing graduates. So do many community colleges that cost far less money.

Another factor behind Ferrum’s high dropout rate is its football program. Out of an entering class of about 560, roughly 100 come to Ferrum thinking that they will play for the Panthers. But the team only has 100 players, including upperclassmen. School officials say that all students know they’ll have to compete for a slot on the team. But, adds Kim Blair, vice president for institutional advancement, “football for many Division III schools is an enrollment strategy,” and Ferrum’s program isn’t any different from those of the other schools in its conference.

Quinten Carter, who chose Ferrum after hitting it off with the college’s football coaches, adds another perspective. “They make you feel like you’re going to start ASAP.” Quinten made the cut, went on to graduate from Ferrum, and feels generally good about his experience, but he says many students come to Ferrum solely because they think they’ll have a chance to play on the Panthers, and wind up disillusioned.

Ferrum’s dropout rate also reflects the fact that many students arrive here intending to transfer out as soon as they can get into a better school. “I knew all along I was gonna leave,” says Michelle Farris, a Virginia Tech senior who transferred from Ferrum after her freshman year. “I’ve always wanted to go to Virginia Tech. I wasn’t able to get in right away, so I had to go somewhere for the first year.”

Ferrum’s administrators point to students like Farris as another explanation for its low graduation rates, while also citing the fact that Ferrum remained a junior college until 1976 and continued awarding associate’s degrees until 1991. “We have students who are late bloomers,” says Douglas Clark, vice president of enrollment services. Adds spokeswoman Davis, “There is still a strong public awareness of Ferrum College as a good place to start. Therefore, there are students who still come to Ferrum to develop academically and then transfer to another college. We consider such students as success stories but, unfortunately, higher education statistics do not reflect the reality of that success.”

But this explanation goes only so far. Nationally, there is a lack of data that can sharply distinguish between schools that are dropout factories and those that largely serve as feeder schools to more elite institutions. But in Virginia, making that distinction is far easier. That’s because it is one of a handful of states that keep track of whether college students who leave one in-state institution ever wind up graduating from another. And it also tracks what their earnings are if they go on to work in the state after graduating. What this information reveals about Ferrum is not pretty.

For example, only 22.8 percent of seventeen- to nineteen-year-olds who started their college careers at Ferrum in 2003-04 graduated within four years from Ferrum or from any other public or private nonprofit institution in Virginia. Yet 43.3 percent of their counterparts at all other private nonprofit four-year institutions in the state graduated within four years. Even ten years later, the 46 percent of students who started as seventeen- to nineteen-year-old freshmen at Ferrum had still not graduated from any college in Virginia, compared to a ten-year in-state graduation rate of 62.3 for students who previously attended Virginia’s other private four-year colleges.

Are there schools that do worse on this one metric than Ferrum? Yes, there are a handful. Historically black Norfolk State University, for example. But what makes Ferrum really stand out is the way that it scores consistently low across a broad range of performance measures. For example, Ferrum is a pricy place for what it offers. Even with grants and scholarships, the average net price to attend the college and live on campus still came to $19,324 in 2012. Largely as a result, fully 91 percent of Ferrum graduates take on student debt. This is far higher than the average borrowing rate for all private nonprofit four-year institutions in Virginia, which comes to 69 percent. Multiplying these borrowing rates by the amount of debt incurred by each graduate yields a weighted debt average of $26,169 at Ferrum, compared to an average $18,910 for all private nonprofit institutions in the state.

Paying back that much money isn’t easy, because even those Ferrum students who manage to graduate tend to earn less than their counterparts at other comparable Virginia schools. Its accounting grads, for example, earn a median $32,331 per year, compared to $42,086 for those at other Virginia colleges.

All of which leads many Ferrum students into default. Of the 461 who began repaying their student loans in 2009, more than a fifth have defaulted. This compares with a national average three-year default rate for private colleges of 8.2 percent.

What’s the meaning of these numbers? Ferrum is hardly a predatory institution. Many of its educators are no doubt trying to do the right thing under increasingly difficult financial circumstances. “A lot of private small colleges are fighting for their lives,” says Jeff Dalton, an art professor who finished teaching at Ferrum this year. “We’re fighting for our piece of the pie, trying to attract students here.”

According to Melanie Rooks, the senior president of Ferrum’s student government, the administration is also taking measures to persuade more students to stay. “They try to instill a passion for learning within us, and they have programs targeted toward sophomores.” Those programs include pep rallies and “Panther pride” pins, plus help for ousted football players to find other activities on campus.

As the testimony of Rooks attests, Ferrum is indeed a source of “Panther pride” for many students. For others such as Michelle Farris, it is at least a good place to gain the grades and maturity needed to get into a more elite institution. It’s not at all clear that the world, much less this one little corner of economically struggling southwest Virginia, would be a better place should Ferrum simply cease to exist.

But for students considering Ferrum, the data clearly shows that they will run a substantially higher statistical risk of educational failure and high indebtedness if they attend this school instead of many others that are likely within their reach. And for taxpayers who are shouldering the costs of the Pell Grants and subsidized student loans, and for policymakers trying to raise educational standards, the question of how to hold schools like Ferrum accountable for their poor performance becomes increasingly urgent.

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Matt Connolly and Phillip Longman

Matt Connolly and Phillip Longman teamed up for this article. Matt Connolly's work has appeared in Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner, among many other periodicals, and he reports on politics and culture for Mic. Phillip Longman is the senior editor of the Washington Monthly.