The recent closure of Mt. Ida College in Newton, Mass., and the purchase of its assets (debt) by the UMass Amherst has dominated the higher education attention of the Boston press. The size of the problem was highlighted when Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, noted that “in the last five years, we’ve had 15 Mt. Idas,” and when the Boston Business Journal editorialized “Mass. must prepare for the next Mt. Ida.” Despite concerns over small, financially vulnerable, colleges in Massachusetts and across the U.S., it is possible that the bigger threat is to regional state universities—especially in New England.
A recent book by Nathan Grawe, economics professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, introduces a sophisticated econometric model that traces the effects of declining demographics both regionally and across various types of colleges and universities. According to Grawe, you cannot simply extrapolate from general demographic trends to discern what enrollments will be at various institutions. When economic and sociological factors are taken into account, the effects of demographic trends are both moderated and exacerbated for various types of institutions.
Interestingly, New England contains both ends of the continuum. According to Grawe’s analysis, elite universities (think Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley) will actually experience increased demand in the upcoming years as more highly educated parents seek to send their children to more selective institutions. The brunt of the demographic decline will be experienced by regional state universities.
The problems for regional universities
First and foremost, the majority of their students come from the region. In contrast, elite universities and the next level of national universities (think U Mass Amherst) draw students from outside the region and the country, allowing them to compensate for declining demand with out-of-state or -nation students. As the regional pool of high school students declines, the state universities have few options for making up enrollment shortfalls. Grawe’s model projects a 40 percent drop in first-time college freshmen for regional universities in the Boston area between 2012 and 2029!
Second, approximately one-half of new enrollments in the regional state universities come from transfer students. These students are coming either from other four-year institutions or from community colleges. Grawe’s model predicts an eight percent decline in community-college enrollment. This will compound the decline at regional state universities, which receive as much as 60 percent of their transfer students from community colleges. Even this may be an understatement because my own research indicates that, at lower enrollments, community colleges serve as net substitutes for four-year institutions drawing students away from them opposed to sending students to them. Since Grawe’s projections for regional state universities relate only to new first-time enrollees, the declines in transfer students will be on top of his projected 40 percent drop.
It is hard to imagine that state universities can survive in their present forms in the face of such declines. It is not surprising that Massachusetts Representative Jay Kaufman recently argued for a restructuring of public colleges and universities in the Commonwealth.