Now that the predicted enrollment decline has arrived, small colleges are no longer talking about it - they are dealing with it in order to survive. Many small, nonselective liberal arts colleges whose strengths are setting, atmosphere, size, community relationships, curriculum, traditions, and, for some , church affiliation, generate strong bonds of local respect and alumni loyalty. With these resources, such colleges (classified by the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies as liberal arts II colleges and making up about one-fourth of the 1,600 independent colleges in the country) have survived tough challenges in the past.
Last fall 17,449 full-time freshmen whom these colleges wanted to educate didn't show up, says the National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities (NIICU) in a new report, ''Diminished Access.'' All geographic regions lost full-time freshmen, but the Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states were hardest hit.
About two-thirds of colleges of this type reported declines in their freshman class; 1 in 3 reported declines exceeding 10 percent, and almost 1 in 6 had losses of 20 percent or more.
For liberal arts II colleges, which average 700 students, any reduction in revenue from tuition and room and board charges is serious. Each missing student means a loss of about $5,600 a year, even after discounting the average institutional scholarship.
The 10 percent loss in tuition and fees which one-third of them reported approximates what such a college spends on libraries, computers, academic administration, and curriculum development combined, the NIICU says.
Liberal arts II colleges face the loss of some of their potential students to more prestigious colleges and universities as these institutions, too, begin to feel the impact of fewer college-age students, a situation demographers predict will last until 1998.
Some colleges and universities are trying to attract older students; some are actively recruiting students from other countries; some are taking a new interest in high school students who show college readiness by the end of their junior year.
Harold Hodgkinson, author of ''Guess Who's Coming to College: Your Student in 1990,'' another NIICU report, points out the competition that traditional colleges and universities face in the growing provision of educational services by industry, government, and other sources.
Mr. Hodgkinson notes that the enrollment decline is a white, middle-class phenomenon. He warns that higher education may have overlooked the growing percentage of minorities in the total population, and particularly in the younger age groups. He points out that by 1990, minorities will make up 30 percent of American youth. To keep up enrollments, he asserts, colleges and universities will have to attract minorities.
Colby College, a predominantly white institution in a rural setting in Maine, has recently taken new initiatives to make its campus more attractive to black students. (Colby does not have a shortage of applicants, but wants to balance its student body racially.)
It has set up a task force of students, faculty, and administrators to explore the problems of minority students at the college and to suggest remedies. The task force is examining existing courses in such subjects as American literature and history to see if they need more information on minorities and women. The college already offers a black studies concentration within the history major.
Recent Colby guests have included Alice Walker, the writer; Nikki Giovanni, the poet; Douglas Daniels, a swing music expert; and the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Troupe.
To attract minority students, Colby offers a Ralph J. Bunche Scholars Program , recognizing academic achievement and leadership potential. The college also plans to activate an already-existing exchange program with Howard University, a predominantly black university in Washington, D.C.
Small colleges facing financial pressure from diminishing enrollments may need to consider merging as one of their options.
Dr. John R. Duff, since April 1981 first chancellor of the Board of Regents of Higher Education in Massachusetts, has presided over and survived two such mergers within the state system of higher education.
''But it's not easy,'' he cautions.
He remembers 1976, when he alternated daily between presidential offices on the north campus (formerly Lowell Technical Institute) and south campus (formerly Lowell State Teachers College) of the newly formed University of Lowell. The two campuses were only a mile apart, on opposite sides of a river, but Lowell State feared being swallowed up, and Tech was suspicious of a new president whose background was in history rather than engineering.
Dr. Duff's memory of his five years at Lowell has mellowed, and he speaks of the good life he enjoyed there.
In August 1981, shortly after he was appointed to his present position, and upon his recommendation, the Massachusetts Regents authorized the immediate merger of two of the institutions in the large system of state colleges, universities, and community colleges of which he is chief executive officer.
The merger of Boston State College with the University of Massachusetts had been scheduled for three years hence but was speeded up because of a $6 million deficit in the 1982 state budget for higher education.
''We had the realities, the facts, the necessity to reallocate resources, and we had the mandate of the State of Massachusetts,'' he says of this second merger. ''So we did what had to be done.''
In his view, personnel, finances, and geography are all important considerations when a merger is contemplated.
You can't just dismiss tenured faculty and administration, he says, even when mergers themselves create the duplications. You must absorb as many as you can and help find suitable positions elsewhere for the others. ''The strong loyalties within departments are both the strength and bane of the university,'' he says. ''Some departments are bureaucratic, defensive, and jealous of their turf.''
On financial considerations, Dr. Duff cites the 1967 merger of Case Institute and Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Western Reserve had an endowment of
There were some restrictions at both institutions on the use of funds. Guaranteeing that those funds would continue to be used for the specific purposes for which they were contributed resolved a problem almost certain to arise when endowed institutions combine.
''It's harder to merge where there isn't geographic proximity,'' Dr. Duff maintains.
''You have to be patient with proposals, respect ideas,'' he offers. ''The necessity to reallocate resources and the function of planning may suggest merging as one of the options.''
''But above all, there has to be a will,'' he insists. ''The problems can be solved if the people involved really want to find the solutions.''