How will Massachusetts respond to college closings?

  • Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education MASSACHUSETTS BOARD OF HIGHER EDUCATION

  • In this April 6, 2018 photo, students walk past Holbrook Hall on the campus of Mount Ida College in Newton. The school shut down weeks later, one of several private colleges that have closed due to financial pressure.  CRAIG F. WALKER/THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA AP

For the Gazette
Published: 5/13/2019 9:11:34 PM

BOSTON — The recent college admissions scandal coupled with broader outrage against mounting student loan debt is pushing many of the country’s colleges and universities to question their practices and re-examine their futures.

But a more insidious problem is weaving its way through higher education circles, too. A number of small colleges, including many in Massachusetts, have been forced to merge with larger institutions or close altogether. What remains unclear is how Massachusetts will be affected by the closures and what state officials and lawmakers will do to protect students and employees.

The abrupt closure of Mount Ida College in Newton last spring was the smoke that signaled a fire. With just a few weeks’ notice, the school left 280 faculty and staff without jobs and over 1,000 students without a college to return to in the fall of 2018.

Massachusetts Board of Higher Education Chairman Chris Gabrieli described the shock he felt when he learned Mount Ida could no longer keep its doors open at a forum at The Boston Foundation last month. The board was not given advance notice and Gabrieli found out about it by reading the day’s headlines.

“It was such a slap to the face when we learned Mount Ida College would be closing on very short notice and leaving stranded so many students, families, faculty, and staff,” he said. “Our board held the first open public meeting and we were literally brought to tears by what we heard.”

In the aftermath of the closure, many demanded action. Multiple bills were filed and several investigations were launched, including one by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. But the closure of Mount Ida College, although perhaps the most damaging to its community, was certainly not the first — or last — in the state.

There have been 15 closures or mergers in the past five years in Massachusetts. That’s not counting Newbury College in Brookline, which announced last December that it would shut down after the spring semester, or Hampshire College in Amherst, which announced earlier this year that it was seeking a “strategic partnership” amid financial troubles. The college’s trustees have since voted to pursue independence.

The number of adults who hold a bachelor’s degree or more is still a minority in the United States and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that their median earnings are significantly higher than those who do not hold advanced degrees. Why, then, are colleges unable to attract and retain students as they once did?

Demographic trends are one explanation. The GI Bill and the emergence of women in the workforce drove more people to higher education. The pool of colleges grew. But people started having fewer children in the decades that followed. Undergraduate enrollment increased by 37 percent from 2000 to 2010, but has started to decline since then (7 percent lower between 2010 and 2016). And other studies have indicated that birth rates in the United States began to decrease in 2008, in an apparent link to the recession.

Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation and the author of a number of books on college education, predicts that because of these trends, the college-age population will shrink in the next few decades.

“Small private colleges around the country are in peril right now,” he said at the same forum. “We have a demographic cliff coming, but it is hitting much harder in the Northeast and in the Midwest than in any other part of the country. And so from 2026 to 2031 in those particular regions, it’s going to be rough.”

Administrative bloat and changing needs of the workforce are also cited as reasons for how a school’s finances can go from struggling to untenable.

“Many (colleges) suffer from broken business models,” Horn said. “And the nature of the workforce is changing. To stand pat and just offer what you’ve offered before might not be good enough in the future.”

As Mount Ida College made clear, the consequences for students are serious. Some lose credits or have to switch programs altogether if the same majors aren’t offered at different schools. Even when a struggling school is part of what many deem as a successful merger, the transition can be difficult.

Wheelock College, for example, became Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development last year, in what was described as “a merger for the better” by the BU alumni magazine. But over 100 Wheelock employees were laid off in the merger and some faculty members worried that the social justice mission and unique feel of the small college would be lost as it became part of a much larger university.

Following the Mount Ida College closure, the Legislature was pressed with the complex issue of how to regulate college finances, both private and public, and what protections should be offered to students and faculty.

In response, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education convened a working group to study the issue. Their recommendations, which were released in a report earlier this year, centered around a new system for screening nonprofit colleges’ finances and warning students at least 18 months before a college is at risk of closing.

The group hopes that the recommendations will be implemented by this fall, but details of the plan still need to be ironed out. The group did not advise which entity should actually carry out the screenings, what metrics would be used to determine which schools need closer monitoring, and how an 18-month warning would be put into practice.

Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, emphasized at The Boston Foundation forum that his department’s goal is to ensure that institutions make it through difficult times and to protect students.

“Until Mount Ida’s sudden closure, our approach had been reactive,” he said. “In the case of Mount Ida, it was too late for us to do anything to help. We need to be proactive going forward and take action earlier to protect students and other stakeholders.”

But groups representing private nonprofit colleges have argued that maintaining confidentiality of the schools’ finances is difficult and that this kind of disclosure could actually tip the scales away from preservation and toward closure.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s bill, which was filed in March, reflected the recommendations of the group, requiring institutions to notify the Board of Higher Education if they are at risk of “imminent closure” and to submit a contingency plan for “timely notification” for admitted students and staff. But it also emphasized discretion. Financial information submitted by colleges and universities to the board would be kept strictly confidential, according to the bill.

Rep. Jeffrey N. Roy, D-Franklin, chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Higher Education. He indicated that school closure and funding are a priority for him and his colleagues on Beacon Hill.

“I’m delighted that we’re actually engaging in this conversation,” he said. “We’re not waiting until 2026 when the bubble really bursts to have this discussion. We have to brace ourselves. Higher education is high on the list of concerns in the Legislature, including the rising crisis of student debt.”

The new regulations will be drafted in May and June and voted on in the fall by the Department of Higher Education. Still, the regulations, if passed, will only serve as a barrier for a slowly rising tide of failing schools. Enrollment declines are likely to continue to disproportionately affect small institutions. According to the group, one-third of them in Massachusetts are currently in danger of closing.

“I am a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Massachusetts higher education,” Gabrieli said. “But deep forces of change are roiling through and challenging it in Massachusetts.”

Brianna McKinley writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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