An academic accreditor looks at higher ed’s horizon

I think what’s happening right now in Vermont is a crisis in higher education.  There’s no doubt about it…

I’m just back from a week in Australia.  It was a very productive time, and also delightful as Oz always is.  The trip also meant I have a lot to catch up with, including blogging.

So, let me re-enter the bloghouse with a link to a single item, Vermont Digger* interviewing Tom Greene.  He’s the founding president of the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, but, more importantly, was recently a commissioner of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE).  That is, he was a college and university accreditor.  For six years.

Higher ed accreditation is almost dark matter in the national conversation about academia.  Accrediting agencies rarely appear in the press.  They almost never pop up in discussions about educational technology.  Yet accreditors are, like dark matter, enormously influential on higher education.  Each campus strives mightily (and at some cost) to retain accreditation; losing accreditation can kill an institution outright.  Even the threat of an agency withdrawing accreditation can clobber student applications and therefore enrollment and therefore campus revenue and therefore…

So let’s look carefully at what Tom Greene has to say about higher education.  His focus is New England, as he makes clear throughout the discussion.  Naturally, given VTDigger’s purview, much of the conversation addresses Vermont.  Kudos, by the way, to the excellent Lola Duffort  for her interviewing.

Greene’s view is empathetic and quite grim.  I extracted this post’s opening quote from his answers.  Overall he sees things getting harder for Vermont higher education, especially from the accrediting side:

I think there’s been a tightening everywhere around tolerance for colleges that are that are teetering…. I’ve actually seen colleges when I was on the commission come back from probation. It’s challenging, and I think it’s more challenging now than it has been in the past.

Be sure to catch that point.  It’s not just that campuses are under a range of pressures, but that accreditors are getting tougher.

ThomasChristopherGreeneSo why are things getting harder in higher ed, especially in New England and Vermont in particular?  Greene leads off his list of explanations with demographics.  Note that the Green Mountain state’s median age is almost 43.  Next he mentions the cultural status of higher ed being in trouble: “I think the idea and value of a college degree and the expense of it is under attack.”

Then he goes on to identify online education as a fierce competitor.  Not all of it: just the megauniversities. And Greene speaks of this in terms of Clayton Christensen’s disruption model, albeit without using the name:

You were seeing a different business model where, you know, University of Southern New Hampshire undergraduate degree tuition is around $8,000 or $9,000 a year compared to the $40,000 or $50,000 it takes for a residential experience. And so people are voting with their feet.

Lola Duffort: Yeah, and their wallets.

Tom Greene: And their wallets.

Recall that SNHU is local to most of New England.  This matters because learners often prefer to take classes from nearby institutions, even online.

So that’s where Greene sees the current state of play.  Duffort takes things further, asking him to see the future of higher ed through his accreditor’s lenses.  Greene gets grimmer:

Lola Duffort: Do you think we’re at the worst part of the crisis? Or do you think it’s going to get worse?

Tom Greene: I think it’s gonna get worse.

Lola Duffort: How much? I mean, do you really think that a third of the schools could close in Vermont?

Tom Greene: Half [of private colleges and universities].

Lola Duffort: Half?

Tom Greene: Yeah. Could. In a short period of time, next two, three, four years. Without some kind of a sea change in how people do business, and how they innovate, and what kind of resources are available to them. I think you’re going to see it… In some cases, closures may look more like mergers or larger institutions taking them over…

Massachusetts has a ton of colleges and universities, most of which are going nowhere, and it has a bunch that are going to close.

Greene goes on to emphasize that he’s talking about private, not public colleges: “It’s different with the state colleges because they have state resources and money, where the independent colleges do not. So I think when it comes to private enterprise, you could see as many as half close the next three or four years.”

To me that sounds like passing peak education.

If this is right, if New England higher ed is in crisis and things will get worse, what will be the collateral damage?  Thankfully both Duffort and Green emphasize the human costs.  Then Duffort points out a particular aspect to that damage:

 A really important thing to keep in mind is that the colleges that are in danger of closing do not enroll the same kinds of students that elite schools do. These are kids that are less likely to be affluent and more likely to be struggling academically — not universally, but in general, if you look at student profiles. These kids are already less likely to graduate on time. If your school shuts down and you have to start all over at a different school, that could really give someone that excuse, maybe, not to finish out their degree. It’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t hurt the graduation rates of that cohort of students. Then you have to think about more kids leaving school with debt but no degree.

Don’t miss that point.  If New England – if America – still wants more and more people to get significant post-secondary experience, then we are running into a fierce challenge to that goal.  In fact, it looks harder to reach that goal than it did a decade past.

Second, there’s a major impact on Vermont’s society and population.  Green gives a good example of the economic damage wrought upon a locality when a college closes.  Duffort adds a broader angle::

A really key thing is, these private schools mostly recruit from out of state. So they’re bringing people in to Vermont. And a lot of these people stay, right? So what’s really scary is that they are a casualty of Vermont’s very well documented demographic problem, right? We’re an aging state. And we desperately need more young people to come in. So they’re the first casualty of that. And at the same time, their closure will likely accelerate that dynamic. Because you’ll have your people coming in because of these colleges, and then staying and doing basic things, like paying taxes and shopping downtown, but also starting businesses. And more intangible but really critical things like local music scenes. Or, I often think about the local food scene in Rutland County, which is really vibrant and amazing, and has a lot of links to Green Mountain College.

[Michael Dougherty, who appears towards the end of the interview]: And that just kind of goes away once those schools go away.

Lola Duffort: That goes away, right.

Remember that Vermont – along with Maine and New Hampshire – are very rural locations, older than more urban states.  Losing colleges would, according to Duffort, accelerate that aging process.

Given the present crisis and unfolding future, what is to be done?  First, Tom Green recommends better public outreach: “I think we need to do a better job of educating people about how we exist as employers and the kind of economic impact we have.”

Second, he hints at “some kind of a sea change in how people do business, and how they innovate, and what kind of resources are available to them…”  I say “hints” because this point isn’t developed.  I’m going to invite him to speak on the Future Trends Forum and we can ask him about it.

Interestingly, Greene doesn’t call for governmental intervention per se.  He sees state attention as crucial, he can’t think of a policy approach that would help.   “I don’t know what I would do. You know, I certainly would want to know more about it. And I don’t know what tools are available to the governor or the legislature, when they think about higher education institutions closing.”  This is very different from either the general call for states to spend more, or even for states to set up new policies against colleges closing.

What can we learn from this?  To an extent we should be careful in extrapolating too much.  It’s only one statement from one person, after all, and the focus is on just one bit of the United States.  Given those caveats, we can float some ideas for subsequent testing and refining.

For starters at least NECHE looks likely to tighten its accreditation process.  This is vital for every campus in the area, and may also point to further crises to come if colleges that previously skated through the process may now face extinction.

It’s also another datapoint in favor of the view that more colleges and universities will close (or merge; Greene was careful to include that option).  Unless surviving campuses manage to expand enrollment and pick up student survivors, this will throw a spanner into America’s higher education plans.

That one futurist’s view of one accreditor’s analysis.  What do you think?  Do you know of other accreditation statements we can add to the mix?

That’s where I’ll stop for now.  It’s a good interview and you should read or listen to it.  Now I have to head back to the email coalface and also coax my internal clock into figuring out what day it is.

*Here’s a shout-out for Vermont Digger as an example of local, independent, and digitally based journalism.  They do important work.

Also, bravo for providing a transcription!  That’s a lot of work, and much appreciated.

(Greene photo from the VCFA site)

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4 Responses to An academic accreditor looks at higher ed’s horizon

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Accreditors are supposed to be gatekeepers, so that students are protected and government funds are not waster. But they clearly are not doing their jobs.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Dahn, Greene thinks accreditors are tightening their requirements, at least in New England. Perhaps this wave of closures, cuts, and mergers is inspiring them.

  2. Maria says:

    I agree that a lot of the small, private colleges will probably close, especially in areas where there are a lot of them. But rather than decry the loss of young people in northern New England, why not create the conditions that are attractive draws for lots of people. For example, Vermont could fix its broadband access. People need to be able to work remotely or at least run a business and that means good internet access and decent transportation options to the airport and to Boston. Small colleges that close would be excellent sites for EcoVillages, co-working spaces, business incubators, and many other uses that would be a draw for energetic entrepreneurs or community-minded environmentalists. I think rural New England is a great place to live but it’d take affordable living options plus good connectivity to make it a viable choice.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Agreed: New England *could* take such steps.
      Vermont isn’t doing that seriously now, mostly because of a mix of inertia and fear of cost.
      Also, the idea of creating zones for retirement seems to be appealing.

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