Academic closures, mergers, and cuts: June 2024 edition.

As June just ran its course, I wanted to share stories of academic cuts I’ve been tracking from that month.

I’ve actually been blogging this theme for months now (March 1, March 20, March 28, April, May), partly as evidence for some points in the book I’m writing.  I also hope to establish something of a record for 2024.

I’ve arranged the stories into the customary categories, with an addition, followed by some reflections.

1 Closing colleges and universities

Union Institute and University (private; mostly or entirely online) announced it would close this Sunday, June 30, following several years of financial crisis, receiving a federal Department of Education emergency letter, being sanctioned by its accreditor, and being sued for unpaid wages.  Their website, https://myunion.edu/, was down for a few days. Now the front page is a good bye message:

Union Institute and University farewell web message

Pittsburgh Technical College will close in August.  The official announcement cited reasons my readers will recognize:

Like many colleges and universities across the country, PTC has faced declining enrollment, market pressures, and inflation in recent years due, in part, to the global pandemic and changing views of higher education.

These external pressures, in addition to orchestrated attacks against the institution, have made it difficult for PTC to increase revenue generation and enrollment numbers to remain operational. Despite continued efforts to raise revenues and address the school’s long standing financial challenges, the nonprofit’s Board determined that long-term fiscal stability was no longer possible.

Eastern Nazarene College (private; Massachusetts) will close, following financial and enrollment problems:

For fiscal 2023, the college racked up an operating deficit of $4.9 million, on top of a $1.3 million deficit the year before. From 2022 to 2023, its total operating revenues fell about 18.7% to $15.5 million.

As with other struggling institutions, financial woes followed enrollment drops. Between 2017 to 2022, Eastern Nazarene’s fall enrollment dropped by more than a third to 535 students. Since 2010, the headcount fell by nearly half, according to federal data.

One campus looks like it’s about to close, but denies it.  Bacone College (Oklahoma; tribal-linked) filed for bankruptcyIts website states that the campus “is open for day-to-day operations but will not be enrolling students until further notice.” Yet its leadership says this move is about redesign, not resignation:

Interim president Leslie Hannah told Inside Higher Ed that while the college doesn’t plan to close, it will take the next academic year off to reorganize in hopes of attracting a partner to merge with or to acquire Bacone.

Not enrolling a new class makes me think Bacone is likely to close, unless it can convince a merger partner of some value it has which is worth obtaining.

2 Mergers

An institution facing an existential crisis has an alternative to close: merging with another, healthier campus.

The California State University (CSU) system (public) recommended merging two of its institutions, the very different California Polytechnic State University (a/k/a CalPoly) with California State University Maritime Academy. Why?  “growing financial challenges and enrollment declines at Cal Maritime.”

There’s more, including framing in terms of general trends:

Over the last seven years, Cal Maritime has experienced a 31% enrollment decline, from approximately 1,100 students in 2016-17 to just over 750 in 2023-24. That, coupled with rising employment and operational costs, has contributed to Cal Maritime’s fiscal crisis. These challenges are not unique to Cal Maritime, as colleges and universities nationally, including the state maritime academies, have been experiencing enrollment and fiscal challenges.

Then there’s a clear statement that a merger is a way to ward off personnel cuts or a closure:

Cal Maritime has implemented several actions and is considering additional steps toward reducing expenses and increasing revenues over the next three years. However, any further reductions to its budget risks compromising Cal Maritime’s critical infrastructure and unique academic mission.

How likely is this to occur?

3 Campuses cutting programs and jobs

Short of mergers and closures, struggling institutions can cut programs and positions. Alverno College (Wisconsin; Catholic; women’s college; founded 1887) declared financial exigency, which means it is in fundamental, extraordinary distress and can thereby take extreme measures. As the school’s official statement puts it, “a proactive measure to restore financial stability and secure Alverno College’s financial future.”  That means:

  • cutting 25 full time faculty members
  • ” 12 full time staff
  • reducing the number of undergrad majors from 43 to 29 and grad programs from 25 to 19

Note the curricular shift involved.  Terminated programs include: cosmetic science; creative arts in practice; education, secondary; English; environmental freshwater science; environmental science; health education; history; mathematics; mathematics/computer science; media design; molecular biology; public health, policy and advocacy; religious studies; Spanish for the professions. Graduate programs cut are Master of Arts in Music and Liturgy and a Master of Music Therapy.

What remains as Alverno’s new focus? Business, communication, education, integrated studies, nursing, psychology and social work, and sciences.  It’s a shift to preprofessional courses and a turn away from the arts and humanities, among other things.

The reason for this drastic step?  A chronic budget deficit.

University of Lynchburg (private university; Virginia) announced it would cut academic programs, faculty, and staff.  That’s 40 staff now, 40 faculty over the next three years, four vice presidents, a dozen undergrad majors, and five graduate programs.  The reasons won’t surprise any of you: declining enrollment (“Between 2017 and 2022, fall headcount declined nearly 15%”) and financial pressures.  The official announcement has some specific additions:

steadily declining birth rates that mean fewer college-aged students nationwide, the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) crisis impacting student financing, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that will likely shape the state of education for the next several years.

Keystone College (private; Pennsylvania) announced it would cut faculty and staff positions, along with several academic programs (“chemistry, forensic biology, and child and family studies (teaching)”). Enrollment decline seems to be the major driver here.  According to Higher Ed Dive,

The college, a 156-year-old institution, has struggled for years now. Between 2017 and 2022, Keystone’s fall headcount declined 25.7% to 1,131 students, per federal data. That number is down by even more — by 35.7% — from 2010. Its latest financials show a $2 million operating deficit for fiscal 2022.

Keystone’s accreditor has also ramped up criticism and the likelihood of sanctions:

Keystone’s restructuring moves come roughly two months after its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, warned that the college was at risk of losing accreditation and closing.

In early April, MSCHE asked that Keystone provide it with a teach-out plan. Later in the month, the accreditor warned that the college was “in danger of imminent closure” and gave Keystone until Aug. 1 to prove compliance with accreditation standards. Failure to do that could mean a loss of accreditation — and the access to federal financial aid that comes with it.

Keystone is also trying to find a merger partner, and might have succeeded:

All of this followed a deal for the college to be acquired by the nonprofit Washington Institute for Education and Research, which fell through earlier this year.

In a separate potential deal, Keystone in late May said it signed a letter of intent with an unnamed “strategic partner” to form what it labeled an “alliance.”

In the college’s words, the deal would provide Keystone with “a more secure roadmap for a long-term path forward.” For now, the college and the partner are keeping names and details under wraps.

Lindenwood University (private; Missouri) laid off two professors and a dozen staff in order to address a deficit.  The reason?  Enrollment decline which at least one official blamed on FAFSA:

Decreased year-over-year FAFSA filing numbers brought on by the stress, confusion and doubts applicants and their parents are experiencing due to this year’s federal aid delays closely mirror the crisis higher education endured during the pandemic, says Kenneth Ferreria, director of student financial services at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

“You have a group of students who, much like COVID, have evaporated,” he says. “They’re not even filing because they’re hearing from other students that this is such a mess.”

Concordia University Ann Arbor (Lutheran; satellite campus of Concordia University Wisconsin) announced massive program cuts:

Starting June 2025, the private Lutheran institution will offer just nine programs — all in medical-related fields — on its physical campus. That’s down from 53 campus programs the university currently lists on its website. It will offer another seven online programs, mostly in education fields, which is down from more than 60 currently.

The reason is financial, as the institution operates at a very large deficit.  Interestingly, its enrollment is actually growing.  No word yet on faculty or staff cuts, but those would logically follow.

Emerson College (private; Boston) announced it would cut staff and not fill some faculty positions due to an enrollment drop. The campus president offered a mix of reasons:

“We attribute this reduction to multiple factors, including national enrollment trends away from smaller private institutions, an enrollment deposit delay in response to the new FAFSA rollout, student protests targeting our yield events and campus tours, and negative press and social media generated from the demonstrations and arrests.”

Some disagree, saying that Emerson’s rising prices are driving students away.

University of Nevada Las Vegas (public land grant; research-1) announced 25% cuts to all non-essential service programs, along with a hiring freeze.  The official cause is an across the board cost of living increase in employee pay.

The Pennsylvania State University system will cut their employee numbers by 10%, after nearly 400 people accepted buyouts.  Additionally, four chancellors will supervise 11 campuses; previously, there was one chancellor per school.  “For example, the chancellor of Penn State Brandywine, Marilyn Wells, will also begin leading Penn State’s Mont Alto and York campuses this summer.”

Saint Cloud State University will cut programs, just not as many as previously announced, 42 instead of 46.

Following recent discussions on campus, including with bargaining units, officials have now opted to moderately lighten the cuts. St. Cloud State leaders elected to keep the university’s bachelor’s programs in manufacturing engineering technology and studio art, and master’s degrees in software engineering and social studies.

(I first wrote about St. Cloud in 2023, then returned to it last month)

4 Budget crises, programs cut, not laying off people yet

Six of 13 University of Wisconsin campuses (public) project having significant deficits in the upcoming year.

New Jersey City University (public) confronts a $337 million debt, according to testimony before that state’s legislature.  This follows a crisis in 2022, where NJCU revealed financial problems, leading to program cuts.

Nott Memorial on the Union College campus; photo by Alan Levine

Union College’s most famous building.

Union College (private; liberal arts; New York state) attempted to create new majors, but the effort backfired when the initiating dean would not consider new hires for them, implying cuts would be in order.  The reason is to address concerns about forthcoming financial challenges having to do with enrollment – not absolute numbers, but their composition:

Union’s challenge is not one of lowering enrollment — as it has been hovering just over 2,000 students for the last few years — but of attracting enough students to apply who do not require hefty financial aid to attend.

5 Countervailing stories

I wrote about Monroe Community College (New York) planning faculty layoffs last month.  Now it looks like MCC’s trustees have reversed course, announcing they would not cut any faculty.  That must have been some excellent faculty protesting and campaigning.


What can we learn from these stories?

First off, we need to recognize the human losses these developments represent.  The stories feature real human beings whose careers, finances, and mental have just taken serious hits.  Students, too, now face their academic records tied to institutions the world perceives as failing or collapsed.  It’s too easy to lose sight of this essential reality when discussing finances, enrollment, and the macro picture.

Second, I note the rising incidence of FAFSA playing a role in such negative events.  From University Business:

Ferreira described the pandemic and this year’s complications as a one-two punch. Greg Matthews, vice president for enrollment management at Western New England University, forecasts the second blow may be more dire for many institutions, considering they have fewer reserves to fall back on to mitigate another large deficit. Moreover, he’s hearing from more and more school recruiters that their institutions’ enrollment numbers are falling below last year’s.

In other words, we should expect more FAFSAgate fallout.

Third, the enrollment question has two levels, the first being raw numbers. Since most of American higher education is effectively privatized, depending therefor on tuition and fees, enrollment declines mean less income. Yet don’t forget the second level, namely the financial level of admitted students.  Enrolling poor or working-class students can mean the institution receives less per head than when rich students take courses.

Fourth, the queen sacrifice is very much in play. (That’s my term for when a campus sacrifices faculty to survive. The analogy comes from chess, where the queen is the most important piece.  Similarly, in colleges and universities the tenured faculty member has major advantages over other populations.)

Fifth, resistance has the ability to reverse administrative decisions, as we see in Monroe, New York.  It is by no means guaranteed or even likely to succeed, based on what we’ve seen over the past decade, but it is a possibility.

Sixth: some institutions will solve their budget problems through cuts, gifts, new revenue, and so on.  Some will not. Every budget crisis in the present day points to the possibility of cuts to come. Even through they might seem abstract or removed from the immediate work of teaching and research, we should heed them.

Seventh, I wrote this post based on public, largely open source information, relying on the good work of journalists.  Colleagues and interested parties have forwarded me such stories.  Other people have approached me quietly, sharing stories which haven’t been made public yet.  I haven’t shared these yet, either because the people didn’t want me to, or because I had no other verification. There might be another stratum of cuts going on, it seems – perhaps small, but there, below the public’s notice.  We need more transparency and better information.

Please, if anyone wants to share their news, contact me.  You can use the comments below, publicly, or reach me privately here.

(thanks to Karen Bellnier and Lee Skallerup Bessette for links; Union College photo by Alan Levine)

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One Response to Academic closures, mergers, and cuts: June 2024 edition.

  1. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    The higher education sector can be fruitfully viewed as an eco-system, because the population ecology perspective explains why we’re seeing widespread closures, mergers, and program cuts across the whole higher education landscape.

    The contraction of colleges and universities in the United States invites parallel comparisons with how specie populations adjust to environmental changes and deal with declines in resource availability.
    The analogy provides a useful framework for understanding the current threats facing higher education institutions. Current challenges, including those related to an over-expanded portfolio of federal student loans, FAFSA issues, the online shift away from in-person instruction, and changing student demographics, are all part of this broader ecological shift. As the *population* of institutions adjusts to find a new equilibrium, we can expect continued changes and adaptations in the higher education sector.

    Over the past twenty-years, the sector rapidly expanded during a period of growth and abundant resources, but now must contract and adapt to a changed environment with more limited resources and different demands.

    Even the cultural narrative regarding post-secondary education has changed, as surveys over the past few years are telling us. Religious colleges are being especially hard hit at a time of increased secularism and declining denominational affiliation of students. Of the 15 institutions that announced closures in 2023, 10 were religiously affiliated and 4 were Roman Catholic.

    Key aspects of this population ecology perspective include:
    — Carrying Capacity: The higher education sector has been overbuilt beyond its sustainable carrying capacity. This overexpansion was largely driven by increased federal funding and financial aid availability, a supportive cultural narrative, and a period of demographic growth that has now reversed.

    Flush with federal funds over the past twenty years, existing campuses expanded their facilities and programs, and number of degree programs exploded, spawning inter-disciplinary majors like roaches in a greasy spoon restaurant. Declining birth rates, and fewer college-age students, are not enough to sustain previous levels of degree production.

    Now the sector’s carrying capacity has been exceeded, institutions are cutting less viable programs and focusing on core strengths, or downsizing and merging, or even closing, reconfiguring the higher ed landscape. From the outside, it looks like Dahn Shaulis’ collegemeltdown.

    — Nor did the job market handle the expansion of higher education, resulting in changing attitudes towards the value and necessity of a college degree. Credential inflation, the boosting of job requirements without an actual need, has resulted in “overselling” college and credentialism — further damaging and undermining the legitimacy of higher education.

    — Resulting in increased competition among colleges and universities for Student Enrollments, to attract students who can pay full tuition, so that many institutions, especially smaller private colleges, are facing financial difficulties (post-Covid). Increased competition, however, creates winners and losers — resulting in a more rigidly stratified higher education caste system.

    — Adaptation and Specialization: To survive in this new environment, colleges are trying to adapt. Some are focusing on niche programs, others are merging or seeking partnerships with disreputable online providers and OPMs. Or even closing.

    — New Equilibrium: The sector is moving towards a new equilibrium set-point that better matches the current environmental requirements, with fewer institutions overall, and a shift towards more career-focused options — all of which is historically related the overbuilding and overselling of higher education.
    This is what the Equilibrium Re-set process looks like:
    https://kivu.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/overshoot-carrying-cap.jpg

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