- In response to a recent spate of private college closures, Massachusetts' higher education commissioner is drumming up support for new policies that would expand state oversight to all its colleges and universities that accept state student aid.
- The proposed regulations, on which the state Board of Higher Education is expected to vote this fall, would require colleges to notify students ahead of time if they are in precarious financial health and foresee closing. Currently, there is no such requirement.
- Closer monitoring aims to ease the shock of a closure by ensuring the institution is taking the proper steps in time to help students finish their degrees or transfer. Failure to comply could lead to the state withholding student aid.
Whether that type of oversight will get traction in other areas of the country where high numbers of small colleges have closed is uncertain. "It's early to know if we can take lessons from Massachusetts, but Massachusetts is wise to get ahead of the trend so they are not reacting," said Michael Horn, chief strategic officer at Entangled Group, an education investment firm.
In the last year or so, several colleges in that state have shut their doors. Mount Ida College, in Newton, closed in May 2018 after a failed merger attempt. Former students sued the college in November, alleging administrators knew the college was in financial trouble as early as in 2014. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in May.
A month later, Newbury College (top image), in Brookline, announced it would close at the end of the spring 2019 semester. And in January, Amherst-based Hampshire College indicated it was struggling to survive. Hampshire has since laid off staff and reduced hours for some faculty members, changed out its leadership and revamped its fundraising. A pending review by its accreditor this fall will offer more answers as to its future.
Massachusetts' higher education commissioner, Carlos Santiago, told Education Dive in an interview that community groups expressed concern about Hampshire's fate during an informal town hall meeting last Friday.
"The issue they were most concerned about, and very legitimately so, was, 'What is the impact of a possible closure on the wider community?' They talked about what would happen to a pizza shop on the street, and about faculty and staff possibly losing jobs," Santiago said. "We've been focusing on (redress for) students, but I can certainly understand all their concerns."
Some higher education analysts are also concerned about the proposed regulatory proviso that says colleges must notify students in advance if they are in financial trouble and foresee closing.
"In some ways, this (notification rule) will hasten the demise of small, private colleges that are going under anyway," Horn said. "When you notify students that their college is on the brink of closing, new students won't enroll, and existing ones will leave faster, putting these tuition-dependent schools in even more trouble."
Alternatively, the possibility of closure could help colleges draw constructive attention to their financial woes.
"Sometimes, the pressure of having to report that they are in trouble can galvanize colleges to stump for support through fundraising and expanding revenue sources," said Lucie Lapovsky, a college management consultant and former college president.
Santiago acknowledged that applying the notification rule will be tricky.
"Do it too early and you could jeopardize the institution, leave it (until) too late means students can't move seamlessly to other institutions," he said. "This means we have to start conversations with institutions a lot earlier in the process."
The proposed new regulations are currently taking public comments. Two formal public hearings on the proposed regulations, in Springfield and in Boston, are scheduled ahead of the state higher education board's expected vote this fall, a spokesperson from Massachusetts' Department of Higher Education told Education Dive in an email.