More academic cuts in early 2024

On March 1st I posted about a series of colleges and universities closing and merging, along with cuts to academic programs, faculty, and staff.

The post attracted some attention.  Publicly, people commented on the blog, commented on the Medium version, and responded across social media.  Several people also wrote me privately – which is a sign of just how difficult and stressful it can be to even discuss the topic openly.  Some of these responses (both public and private) shared additional stories of academic cuts, and I wanted to share them as part of my research.

Also, in the half-month since the last post on the topic more academic cut stories have appeared, and I’m going to share those here as well.

I’ll reprise the categories I used last time, except for one I couldn’t find stories for.

1 Closing colleges and universities

The University of Antelope Valley (for-profit, California) is shutting down.  As Wikipedia nearly summarizes:

As of early 2024, the university was in a state of collapse.[2] On February 29, 2024, the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education ordered the university to cease all operations by Friday, March 8, 2024 due to its “severe financial position.”[3][4]

The bureau specified three reasons: “The institution is not financially sound… Insufficient administration… Insufficient facilities.”

Northland College (private; Wisconsin) launched a desperate fundraising appeal.  I wrote “desperate” because they face imminent closure.  Don’t take my word for it.  Here’s the official statement:

Northland College has announced an urgent fundraising appeal to raise $12 million by April 3 to avoid closure and reimagine its future. A comprehensive review by the Board of Trustees and College Leadership confirmed the College does not have sufficient resources to continue current programs and operations beyond this academic year. Its operating model—which has evolved many times in the 132 years since its founding—is no longer sustainable.

Fontbonne University (private, Missouri; Catholic, high black enrollment) announced it would shut down in summer 2025Here’s the last president’s statement:

One big reason for that move is catastrophic enrollment collapse.  Wikipedia again:

In 2022, it was revealed that the huge drop in enrollment of students from 2,293 (in 2011) to 955 (in 2021) has caused the university to operate at a deficit for the past 10 years. [10]

By November, 2023 enrollment had dropped to 874 with a deficit of $5.2 million.

Washington University St. Louis is purchasing Fontbonne’s campus property as well as assisting with teaching out current students.

2 Institutions merging

Bay Path University (private; Massachusetts) will acquire nearby Cambridge College (private). “The acquisition will nearly double the number of students served by Bay Path and bring total enrollment to over 5,000 students.”  Why was Cambridge vulnerable?  Once more, enrollment.

Interesting twist: the state of New Jersey is calling for someone to buy partner with New Jersey City University (public).   What’s the problem with NJCU?  Let’s let Wikipedia summarize:

In June 2022, NJCU declared a financial emergency and sought a $10 million lifeline from the state government.[4][5][6] Henderson resigned as president of the university, effective July 1.[7][8][9] In August, Governor Phil Murphy called for an investigation into NJCU’s dramatic change in financial standing from a surplus of $108 million in 2013 to a deficit of $67 million amid plans to expand NJCU’s campus. It was later learned that there was never a surplus and those facts were misreported. The university did have a $22.7 million operating deficit.[6][10] The university announced a cut of 37% of its academic offerings. Campus expansion was curtailed.

3 Campuses cutting programs and jobs

Drake University

Drake University (private; Iowa) announced it would cut a series of programs and, as a result, some faculty members.  The former include:

Undergraduate Majors: Anthropology/Sociology (ANSO), Astronomy, Physics, Religion , Rhetoric, Health Care Administration

Undergraduate Minors:  Anthropology, Religion, Rhetoric, East Asian Studies

Graduate Majors: Master of Accountancy, Master of Public Administration

Graduate certificate Evidence-based Health Care

At the same time, Drake will direct resources to other programs.  Note them and the rationale:

While this work demands that we make difficult decisions, it also presents an opportunity to invest in academic innovation that aligns with institutional strengths and meets evolving needs of Drake students and the communities where they will engage. Earlier this week Drake launched an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program to address the national nursing shortage and growing demand for high-quality nursing education. We recently invested in other new programs, including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. These programs exemplify the University’s commitment to create academic offerings built upon institutional strengths, address student interests and societal needs, and ensure Drake students are prepared to graduate ready to make a difference in the world.

The rationale isn’t an immediate crisis, but a deficit and concern over future stresses.

Valparaiso University (private; Indiana) announced it was examining nearly 30 academic programs for closure by fall 2024.  Most are undergrad majors:

Actuarial science major and minor
Astronomy major and minor
Bachelor of Music (all concentrations)
Complementary humanities major
Economics and computer analysis major
German major
Global studies majors (all concentrations)
International business and international business and global studies minor
International relations major and minor
Philosophy major and minor
Public and professional writing major and minor
Public health major
Spanish major
Statistics major and applied statistics minor
Supply chain and logistics management major and minor
Theology and ministry major and minor
Theology major and minor

These graduate programs are also up for potential axing:

Digital media
Educational and psychological foundations
English studies and communication
Initial licensure – elementary education
Nurse educator
Public health (global health)
Public health (no concentration)
Sports media

How did they pick these programs?

“The programs were identified after careful examination of several factors, first and foremost low current enrollment and enrollment trends. Other metrics considered were Student Credit Hours per Full Time Equivalent Faculty (SCHs/FTE), Direct Contribution Margin (DCM) and market data both from peers and the government,” [Valparaiso University Provost Eric] Johnson stated. “We also looked closely at each program’s service to other Valpo programs, and how to maintain institutional offerings that would continue the tradition of being a comprehensive university, grounded in the liberal arts to the fullest extent possible.”

4 Budget crises, no program or people cuts announced yet

Central State University (public; HBCU; Ohio) is preparing cuts in response to a budget deficit (“a $4 million shortfall, about 6% of the total operating budget”).  Right now a bunch of expenses are stopped: “all spending will be halted, including office supplies, travel, and personnel services, such as consultants. Hiring is frozen except for grant programs and critical roles.”

Xavier University (private; Ohio) faces a $16 million deficit, and is bringing in consultants to analyze the problem.

So what do we make of this?

I wrote some reflections on a previous round of cuts, and will direct readers that way.  Today I’ll just add a few notes.

Note the geography.  Many of these stories come from the midwest as well as the northeast.  My readers know these are areas where demographics mean fewer high school students, not to mention fewer people overall.  This morning I heard one Ohio academic state that her institution was the only one growing in that state.  It seems to me we need to plan on this situation deepening through the medium term future, at least.

Note, too, the New Jersey story.  My impression is that state governments don’t want to close their public campuses, even while they enact policies which depress enrollment (cutting per-student funding, reducing degree requirements for public jobs, etc.). We might see more states take steps to manage their universities’ decline.

One more note: when I write and speak about academic cuts and closures, people reach out to me to share their stories and information privately.  Over emails, DMs in other platforms, hushed conversations in person academics and non-academics tell me about what they’re hearing and experiencing.  This insistence on privacy is important.  The higher education space isn’t very supportive about open conversations on such institutional crises, much less broader trends which exert pressure on our sector.

Some of this is very practical or tactical.  Institutional leaders fear – rightly – that publicly describing weaknesses may depress applications, continued enrollment, and investment. Faculty and staff might want to win a job elsewhere before their reputation is tarnished by having worked at a failed campus.  State leaders should be careful about making their higher education system appear in a negative light nationally – for my non-US readers, state universities charge out-of-state students much more for tuition, and hence don’t want to lose that enrollment.

I think some of this is also psychological in a historical/political way.  American higher education grew – boomed – from the early 1980s to around 2012.  To some degree we academics were shaped by that expansionary mode.  We’re now in a different era, trying to grapple with what I call post-peak higher ed.  It’s a hard shift to make, and perhaps an awkward, even embarrassing one to make. (In contrast, academics from the rare institutions which are actually growing boast to me about their numbers.) On the political side, some academics see themselves as locked in a struggle with anti-intellectuals, with populists who disdain expertise, with the extreme right wing. Discussing higher ed’s financial and structural struggles might seem like giving their opponents ammunition.

I’ll close with a plea for readers to attend to the human stories here.  While we talk about structures and trends, large statistics and policy shifts, we should remember that these sometimes macro, meso, or abstract developments are grounded in people’s lives.  We need to hear and support them more than we do.  Yes, this means I’m interested in hearing from you, if you have information to share or a story to tell.

(thanks to Karl Aho, Andy Anderson, Mo Pelzel, George Station, Robert Morgan; Drake photo by Daniel Hartwig)

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7 Responses to More academic cuts in early 2024

  1. sibyledu says:

    “My impression is that state governments don’t want to close their public campuses, even while they enact policies which depress enrollment (cutting per-student funding, reducing degree requirements for public jobs, etc.). We might see more states take steps to manage their universities’ decline.”

    This is an accurate impression. More precisely, public institutions are generally harder to close than private ones, because they have champions in the policy sphere. I live in a state where one underenrolled and underperforming university is protected from closure by a number of overlapping political powers. And I am sure that a number of readers will think they recognize this campus because there are many of them around the country. Even Pennsylvania, a state that is closing a few public campuses, did so only after many years of planning and study, including outside experts and commissions; even now there are some in Pennsylvania who are trying to undo those closures because of the effects on affected communities. In Wisconsin, a hostile legislature with a political supermajority is closing a few campuses, but even there they face significant resistance, especially locally.

    I wonder what “manage their universities’ decline” will look like, given these realities (and examples).

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Wisconsin seems to be the most extreme example, sibyledu.

      A few thoughts about that public decline:
      -more back-end synthesis (castling, for a chess metaphor) – IT, HR, disaster planning, etc.
      -cutting programs and programs at certain campuses, which might lead them to become specialty schools
      -on the one hand, more online classes; on the other, in-person campuses become more focused on what needs most to be in person. Think culinary arts, diesel tech, dance performance, surgery, instead of philosophy or Spanish language.
      -eventually closing some campuses which lose out politically. Compare with base closures in the 1990s.

      • sibyledu says:

        Those are valuable thoughts.

        This probably needs to be its own discussion, but I wonder about the place of online classes in the ecosystem. Some online classes are already good experiences, and they will undoubtedly get better going forward. But at the moment they are best suited for people who are already self-directed learners, and not for the most vulnerable students with the greatest need for skill support, assistance, and peer and instructor contact. I worry, given our nation’s track record, that the least ready populations will be told “just take it online” without being assured that there are appropriate supports for those students.

        • sibyledu says:

          Dang it, I wish we could edit comments. I meant to say “Thanks for these valuable comments, and I think you’re on track with them.”

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            I appreciate your taking the time to make sure that sentiment got across, sibyledu.

            Online learning: higher education’s shameful inattention to assuring teaching and learning quality is really biting us here, as in offline classes. It seems likely schools will drive digital classes to adult learners for flexibility reasons, which makes sense. I hope, hope, hope we keep an eye on improving teaching online (and off!).

  2. Glen McGhee says:

    Bryan, Why leave out the 2U collapse? OPMs are also part of this picture — as are innumerable other parts and pieces. AI is gnawing away at the legitimacy of classroom assessment, like beavers, as we wait for the tree of school-based knowledge to fall in silence, into the abyss. Arguably, a uniquely kairotic moment — Covid — paved the way for AI-written theme papers. Once the online-pivot was made complete, its fate (ala Moirai, Hemarmenai, Ananke) was sealed.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Glen, I didn’t hit 2U because it’s not an academic entity, but a provider. That seems like a separate domain, ultimately, even given what they help make possible.

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