Two small college futures: woe in Massachusetts, promise in Michigan

American higher education sector includes a large number of small colleges.  It’s not clear how they will fare under today’s stresses, or how many will survive peak higher education.

Mount Ida College logoCase in point: Mount Ida College in Boston will cease to exist.  Through a deal announced this weekend the University of Massachusetts system will buy out Mount Ida’s debt and campus.   As one local journal puts it, “[t]he newly acquired campus will be known as the Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst and will operate as an extension of the Amherst campus.”

Why is this happening?  Readers may recall my February post about Mount Ida, where I described that college’s attempt to merge with neighboring small campus Lasell.  The reason given for this radical step was a drive to cut costs and make both schools more affordable.  As the Boston Globe observed then, “tuition is about $35,000 per year, plus about $14,000 for room and board.”  The direct plan was to reduce costs by realizing staff efficiencies – i.e., combining services and laying off “administrators.”

Mount Ida’s trustees issued a statement which offered a different rationale, familiar to my readers.  They cited “clear long-term resource concerns”, and situated their specific problems in the broader context, wherein  “the long-term viability of small, tuition-dependent colleges remains a significant challenge.”  Mount Ida’s president explained things in terms of “our limited resources”, noting that “the financial pressure on small colleges has never been greater”.

Recall that Massachusetts demographics see a decreasing high school population.

The entire Mount Ida faculty and staff populations will be unemployed.  From Masslive: “[t]he 280 faculty and staff, part-time and full-time, will be laid off. They are expected to receive severance packages, a Mount Ida spokeswoman said.”

What will happen to Mount Ida students?  According to the Boston Globe, “[t]he agreement will allow students at Mount Ida to complete their degrees at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.”  Seniors can graduate this year.  Many are outraged.

Interestingly, there was no mention of UMass Boston.  That campus is already in the city; is UMass Amherst tapping it for internships?  Critics have noted that the UMass system has been critical of the Boston campus’ debt, yet the system (or the Amherst instance) will now take on even more (I’ve seen numbers circling around $50 to 70 million).  Question: what motivated UMass leadership to take this particular and large step?

Lost in the Mount Ida story are the troubles of its neighbor.  In February I noted that Mount Ida and Lasell College were pursuing a merger.  That deal fell apart, and while Mount Ida’s fate has apparently been settled (the state has to approve the institutional and debt acquisition), Lasell remains unmerged and still confronting its problems.

Mount Ida and Lasalle are not first-ranked colleges.  Their woes suggest that while the top-ranked small colleges may survive peak higher ed, those further down the rankings may not.  As Scott Jaschik observes that “The speed with which Mount Ida went from seeking a partner for a merger to seeking one to take over its campus and the education of its students illustrates the fragility of many colleges.”

For contrast, consider a Michigan project as described by Alma College’s president.  Instead of mergers, Alma, Albion, and Calvin Colleges created up inter-campus classes:

After months of work, we began a pilot in January in which Albion, Alma and Calvin each offer a course open to students on all three campuses. The pilot courses are “Earth, Art and the Environment” at Albion, “Visual Sociology” at Calvin, and “Media Theory and Culture” at Alma. On the “home” campus, a faculty member and students are joined by students from the other two campuses via monitors. Google’s technology enables largely seamless interaction across the three campuses.

Inter-campus classes are one of the great and woefully underappreciated wins for technology and higher education.  They can expand participating campus’ curricula, boost opportunities for students, grow specialized classes that might be too small to survive at small institutions, and set up new avenues for professional development.

In terms of technology and pedagogy, synchronous video seems to play a key role in how these classes work.  In addition, president Abernathy emphasizes not lectures, but discussions and small group work.  In other words, they’re doing something like my Type II webinar model.

I’ve written about inter-campus teaching and learning previously, citing examples from the Council for Independent Colleges and LACOL.  In fact, I helped design and offer such a class in 1999 and 2001.

Mergers and closures, or collaborative teaching through technology: these are two paths forward for American small colleges in 2018.  Are you seeing colleges near you taking either of these directions?

(thanks to Pumpkin Yang)

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