college closing

Why are colleges closing and what can we do?

Administrative collaborations and develop pathways from programs to careers are two ideas whose time has come

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.

Slow to change
Undoubtedly, many institutions will try to apply Band-Aids to bolster enrollment without making fundamental changes in their business models. One of the most recent college closings, Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon, provides a harrowing challenge to that thinking.

Marylhurst, a small liberal arts college, had added adult programming and an online MBA in recent years to replace declines in its traditional student body. In the face of competition from large institutions such as Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University and without changes to its core programs, the university could not sustain overall enrollment and was forced to close. This mimics that pattern at Mt. Ida.

Both regional universities and small colleges must rethink their underlying business models. For too long, traditional core programs have been unprofitable at many of these schools. Financial viability has been maintained only through the addition of adult and online programming or auxiliary services while traditional programs have remained unchanged. As the Mt. Ida and Marylhurst closures reveal, this is a dangerous strategy.

What options are available?
Several strategies come to mind. First, colleges can pursue administrative collaborations that could potentially reduce their cost structures. Prior to the Mt. Ida closure, Mt. Ida and Lasell College (also in Newton, Mass.) had combined safety, information systems, and other services. In upstate New York, small liberal arts colleges have developed similar collaborations resulting in substantial cost savings.

Second, states can become more strategic in developing coordination and control of regional universities. The Maine public higher education system is headed in this direction. Ultimately, the merger of institutions may be necessary. A first step could be to follow the Penn State model of merging two-year institutions into nearby four-year ones.

Administrative cost savings and the merger/elimination of current programs, however, do not get at the fundamental challenges posed by declining enrollments. Changes must be made in traditional programs. We need to rethink the linkage of traditional programs to regional economies and to develop pathways from these programs to long-term careers and to attractive job placements at graduation. This will mean eliminating some traditional majors while creating interdisciplinary majors. Rhode Island’s Bryant University requires all business majors to have a minor in the humanities or social sciences and for humanities and social sciences majors to minor in business. This approach should be considered by many more universities.

Similarly, technology in instructional design cannot be merely an added expense of instruction. We must focus on changing instruction to a model that increases learning and reduces costs. Foreign language instruction is a good example. Language-instruction companies have developed extremely effective technology-based language-acquisition programs. Universities, for the most part, continue to teach language as it always has been. At many state universities, language instruction is minimal—few languages are offered and, for those offered, instruction is available at only the introductory level. In this day and age, we must offer a wide range of languages at all of these institutions; students should be able to develop mastery. This can be done with technology—it cannot be done with traditional face-to-face instruction.

Targeting a different demographic
While the number of traditional aged students enrolling in regional universities in New England will decline dramatically in the next 10 years, this does not mean that the total number of potential students is in decline. Adult students who have some college but have not completed bachelor’s degrees represent a growth opportunity. Furthermore, the New England economy is in desperate need of the skills that these individuals could bring to the marketplace with properly designed degrees or certificates. These students are not, however, going to return to traditional college campuses to take traditional academic programs using traditional instructional delivery models.

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) already figured this out and offers online and low-residency programs designed for adult students and focused on areas of significant job growth. What SNHU has accomplished in changing the university culture is more important than its program offerings. SNHU has developed a campus-wide perspective that adult students are the new normal, allowing the university to conceptualize everything from degree programs to admissions to student services with the part-time working adult student in mind. The college did not just add on adult programs; it reworked its educational model.

The storm clouds for New England public higher education are quite dark. “Business as usual” will likely result in many more “Mt. Idas.” On the other hand, a strategy that focuses on both new student populations and revising old educational models could provide exciting new opportunities for transformed universities.

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