Academic cuts, mergers, and closures from April

April has brought more academic cuts, mergers and closures.  I noted examples of this trend in last month (1, 2, 3) but as they used to say on radio, the hits keep coming.  A Hechinger Report article claimed one institutional closure per week, and I recommend the piece for its humanity.

In this post I’ll be brief, as I have a week full of travel, meetings, and iffy broadband.  I’ll also reuse my previous categories, starting with…

1. Closing campuses

California’s University of Saint Katherine (private; Orthodox Christianity) will shut down, despite enrollment gains.  The cause: running out of money.

Across the country, Ohio’s Sinclair Community College (public) announced it would shut down two campuses.  The reason: declining enrollment.

2. Mergers

The Vermont College of Fine Arts will become “an affiliate” of the California Institute of the Arts (a/k/a CalArts). VCFA will retain trustees, some leaders, and offices in Montpelier, but will start holding in-person classes at CalArts starting next year.  According to VCFA’s official announcement:

In legal form CalArts will be our “parent,” but under the terms of our affiliation agreement VCFA will retain its academic independence, administrative offices in Montpelier, and its unique form and mission.

And about those trustees: “The college’s board of trustees, he said, would be reconstituted with a split of membership between CalArts picks and VCFA appointees,” according to VTDigger.

Nearby, a state-appointed commission published a report calling for New Hampshire institutions to merge. Well, perhaps “merge” is too strong a word. It never appears in the report. Nonetheless, the report calls for all kinds of syntheses between the state’s public universities and community colleges: making their respective administrations share offices; creating a common admissions system between the two; ditto for ERP systems; unifying the accreditation process for all institutions; increasing student transfer between campuses; cut review current space usage to ” identify partnership opportunities”; setting up “a centralized online support group and investigate initiatives to meet student needs”; coordinating scheduling across the two systems.  Also, to “[s]tudy the possibility of having the two systems under one governing board and one chancellor.”

New Hampshire enrollment 2019-2023_from a state commission

The reason for this: decreasing enrollment, which the charge assigned to demographics.

I do wonder what happened at the commission’s tail end.  Check out their last two meetings:

March 22, 2024: The Task Force convened at NHED in Concord and discussed edits to the content of the executive summary, organization of appendices, and categorization of recommendations in the report template.

March 27, 2024: The Task Force convened an emergency meeting at NHED in Concord to review and accept that the report accurately reflected the work of the Task Force.

Emergency meeting, eh?  I do wonder why someone called that and what changes they made to the document.  And why it was so urgent.

3. Budget crises, not laying off people yet

This time I don’t have involuntary cuts to report, for which I’m grateful.  Instead:

Wisconsin’s Northland College (private; liberal arts) faced a financial crisis, and a fundraising campaign failed, leading to a declaration of financial exigency with a threat of impending closure.  This stirred some wealthy people into making large if unspecified donations which seem to keep the college afloat for now.  Cuts remain on the table:

Since [the new gifts] leadership has held meetings with faculty and others to explore restructuring, likely layoffs, and other changes to try to bridge the college’s deficit, in the face of what the Board has described as a “severe financial crisis.”

Trustees say they plan to continue to meet with faculty and others to continue work to try to develop a sustainable, long-term plan for the school, which was founded in 1892 and enrolls around 500 students.

“This will continue to require a strategic academic re-prioritization and the need for serious decisions,” the Board said in its latest announcement.

The University of Arizona (public; land grant) prepared layoffs, and some academics protested while faculty called for a delay.  The cause: a massive deficit, which now seems to be marginally less bad.

Cleveland State University in Ohio (public; research university) is preparing buyouts for faculty and staff with at least a decade of experience.  The cause: a major deficit.

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, a major accreditor, put Pittsburgh Technical College on probation at risk of losing accreditation.  Why?  Problems alleged concern financial control, teaching quality, and governance.  There aren’t any statements about cuts yet, although mergers – sorry, partnerships are in the air.

Faced with financial problems, St. Norbert College in Wisconsin (private, Catholic; liberal arts) cut faculty and staff earlier this year, and is now expanding programs, rather than cutting them.

Note the kinds of degrees they are adding:

Engineering Physics Major:

Robotics Minor

Sustainability Minor

Management Major

Finance Major

Marketing Major

Supply Chain Management Major

Digital Marketing Minor

Project Management Minor

Data Analytics Minor

Game Development Concentration

Certificate in Arts Management

A strong emphasis on technology and business, in other words.

One more datapoint to add: Inside Higher Ed published its latest survey of university presidential attitudes.  I’d like to draw attention to the views on campus finances as shown in this slide:

Presidential attitudes towards finances

That’s a positive picture, overall.  Yet don’t miss the sting in the tail:

16% say that senior administrators at their institution have had serious internal merger discussions in the last year; most of these presidents support merging

16% are seriously talking about mergers!  That’s around 600 colleges and universities, by my rough math.

So where does this leave us?

One way of assessing these stories of 2024’s cuts is to view all of these schools as institutionally weak.  They are suffering from hits to their reputation, sometimes from corruption or mere mismanagement.  They tend to be too small or brittle to withstand pressures which other campuses can endure.  These are outliers in the post-secondary herd and their fates don’t reflect much on the rest.  Perhaps we’re better off without them, if they are that incompetent.  Let the death spiral whirl, as a Slate columnist once urged.

I’m persuaded that other factors are in play here, factors – trends – which press on the entirety of higher education.  The enrollment decline afflicting the entire sector appears most sharply in these edge cases, but isn’t going away, especially as the demographic transition continues.  The flight of students away from the humanities and towards STEM, allied health, and business is widespread. And the difficulties in maintaining a nonprofit based primarily on enrollment are ones I’ve heard from a wide range of campus leaders, including those working at well-endowed colleges and universities.  Rising skepticism about higher education, rising costs for operating these institutions, the potential threat of AI, the intractability of students debt – all of these are generally in play.

That’s it for now.  I’m on the road this week and have other topics to write about.  I hope the season of cuts and closures is fading – but I’m not betting on it.

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5 Responses to Academic cuts, mergers, and closures from April

  1. Bill Owens says:

    Wells College will be closing in a matter of weeks – something that was apparently a surprise to practically everyone on campus.

  2. Sally Brett says:

    You may have read the supposedly satirical commentary in the Thursday April 25 edition of the Washington Post (pA25), titled “Here’s an idea for colleges: No more faculty –or students.”

    Gary Smith’s rationale was based, properly, on data drawn from Ponoma College as a reflection of national trends: As if 2022, the number of students had increased 17% from 1990, the number of professors declined from 180 to 175, and the number of administrators increased from 56 to 310. To continue the decrease in professor to administrator ration, suggests Smith, the college simply should fail to replace professors and entice current faculty to depart. The college would have fewer students apply as the faculty-student ratio would become unattractive (faculty 0?).

    Thus, within a decade only administrators would comprise the college. They could sustain the “college” by renting out dorms and classroom spaces, thus increasing the budget for more administrators. Simple!

    Apparently some colleges, given your summary above, took it quite seriously.

  3. Awesome write up, as usual. Thank you, Bryan. I would love to get more of your perspective. Given changes in the economy, wavering attitudes towards higher education in the West, and developments in different technologies (such as AI), where do you see higher education in general by the year 2030?

  4. Joe Murphy says:

    In the IHE survey, I notice almost a quarter of presidents think their institutions are likely to be less financially stable in a year, a third don’t know or won’t say, and 18% of the people who answered the previous questions wouldn’t even submit an answer on that one. Hopefully they’re right that it’s going to get worse before it gets better (as opposed to get worse and stay worse).

  5. sibyledu says:

    Update: Northland College has announced that it will remain open, under a plan that has it offering eight interdisciplinary majors. No word yet on the number of faculty and staff to be cut.

    Before that news, your last paragraph had me pondering about how those pressures might spill over from those edge cases.

    We are already starting to see those pressures move against lower-tier public institutions, such as the recent threat to Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio and the consolidation of four-year colleges in Pennsylvania. A decade ago I had thought publics would be immune, protected by political interests, but I was wrong. Political protectors slow down the closure process, but don’t necessarily prevent it altogether – and many institutions won’t have protectors with enough strength to stop the squeeze.

    The top of the pyramid (to change metaphors) won’t suffer very much. Columbia University is taking a big public hit these days because of campus protests and the reaction to them – but I’m not seriously worried about Columbia’s enrollment, or its overall institutional health, let alone its survival.

    So the line will be drawn somewhere in the middle – but where? My state has about 15 private colleges. I expect that the top 3 will survive and the bottom 3 will probably close in the next 20 years, but I don’t have any idea how many of the others will make it: three more? Six more? And is that a time-bound question – as in, does the survival of colleges 7-9 depend on holding out until colleges 10-12 close and they can pick up the latter’s students? And since many small colleges are experiencing inexplicably large variance in enrollment in given years – as in, a college that normally enrolls 400 enrolls 320 instead – does it depend on how many of those drops it can stand in a row?

    I also think we need to become a lot more specific about the idea of being “tuition-dependent.” Obviously, any college that draws 90% of its revenues from tuition can be said to be tuition-dependent, but I’ve heard people claim that 40% or 30% of revenues from tuition make them “tuition-dependent.” Sure, losing 30% of revenue would be a big hit to your budget, but you’re not “dependent” on tuition in the same way.

    And I don’t know how big of an endowment an institution needs to feel comfortable. Every institution wants a bigger endowment, of course, but institutions with endowments above $100,000 per FTE are probably secure. But how much smaller can you be? Is $60,000 enough to survive? $30,000? $10,000? (Still fewer than half of all private institutions.)

    Is the higher ed sector in trouble? Yes. Are the closures to date still something that can be explained by one or more particular institutional weakness? Yes. Will there be a closure that we can’t see coming? Probably, but we’re not there yet, and I can’t see what will drive it. Current enrollment declines are real, but aren’t catastrophic, which suggests that for the next few years a lot of colleges will be hanging on through some downturns and trying to avoid circling the drain.

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