Another college to close: intimations of mortality in higher education

Marian Court CollegeSometimes even a queen sacrifice won’t help.  This week Marian Court College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts institution in the Boston area, announced it would close.

What ended Marian Court?  Declining enrollment, primarily.  As a tuition-dependent school with a tiny endowment, fewer students are a body blow.  Enough years of decline, and such an institution can’t stay open.

It’s a very sad story, especially given what students and faculty say about MCC being a close-knit community.

What does this event tell us about higher education as a whole?  Here are some reflections, bearing in mind this story just broke:

To begin with, small size may turn out to be a problem.  That was an issue for Sweet Briar.  Many institutions making queen sacrifices aren’t big.  Marian Court is – was – a very small school, with 266 students this term.   Perhaps small scale renders these campuses especially vulnerable to enrollment reductions.

Demographics are a major force, perhaps the most powerful one in higher ed, as anyone who follows my work knows.  Marian Court draws on New England, where, as Inside Higher Ed reminds us, “From 2000 to 2010 the number of children in New England fell 6 percent, a decline that continues today.”  That continues today: this demographic pressure is going to keep squeezing.  Listen to this comment, and tell me you don’t feel a chill:

“Given demographics, we have too many colleges and universities, and so the herd will be the thinned out.”

Kent Chabotar, Guilford College

And so the herd will be thinned out.  Also from IHE:

In the last four years an average of five colleges have closed a year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. So far this year four colleges have announced closures, and one has suspended operations.

One future of education is right there: fewer students, so fewer colleges and universities.

Financial support: Marian College has a tiny endowment and doesn’t generate rich graduates.  It’s fairly young for an American school, too, founded during that great 1960s rush of campus construction, so it hasn’t had centuries to accumulate funds and donation-prone families.  “The college tried to get a credit extension but was denied”, notes IHE.

Commuter colleges Marian is not a residential campus, although it has lovely buildings and grounds.  So it didn’t really run in the amenities arms race.  I fear some will draw the lesson of “we need more lazy rivers” from this story.  A better lesson is to draw our attention to the hundreds, perhaps thousands of commuter campuses across the US, and to see how they are set up in these crucial parameters: enrollment, demographics, financial support.

Changing the discussion: when we discuss why American higher ed costs so much, we often mention declining state support on a per-student basis, which is clearly a major driver.  But that leaves off the private sector, which includes roughly one-third of American institutions, if it educates a small proportion.  We need to take that group’s experience into account.  We also discuss the amenities arms race, which doesn’t apply here, not to a lot of commuter campuses.

Once again, I fear that this is a new and darker era for higher education.  Around 2008 the game changed.  Funding became harder for both private and public institutions.  The Great Recession hit us hard, and still has a hold on us, even if the rest of the economy is “recovering”.  Fewer students enroll in American higher ed, and the national pool of eligible students seems to be shrinking.  As my title suggests,

It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

We have to rethink how higher education works, how we’re doing, and also to shift our strategies in this new normal.

Now, this is apparently not true of the elite institutions, which receive the lion’s share of American educational resources, and also the cynosure of media.  Perhaps we should pay less attention to Harvard and more to Marian Court, and learn more about what’s actually going on in higher education.

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5 Responses to Another college to close: intimations of mortality in higher education

  1. Brian, it would be interesting to see the size of the institutions that have closed in the last few years. Small institution size is probably a risk factor even if it’s not causative.

  2. amichaelberman says:

    sorry, of course I meant to type “Bryan”…

  3. @NatM4Equity says:

    Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    If you haven’t been following Bryan Alexander’s higher ed (and other posts), cruise the “future of education” category to fill in the back story. Brace yourself and don’t skip the “higher education futures” posts either.

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