Another campus closure, another queen sacrifice

This season has seen quite a few bad news stories for American higher education.  Let me address two developments from my ongoing environmental scanning work in this post, as datapoints for academia’s future.

(I’m trying not to be too glum – you all saw my optimism in the face of apocalypse a few days ago.  Yet the mood music I chose for writing this post isn’t exactly chipper.)

To begin with, another small college announced it would close.  This time it’s Hiwassee College in southeastern Tennessee.  The reasons the terminal leadership cited won’t surprise my readers:

“Growing marketplace trends including substantially discounted or highly subsidized public education, changes in demographics, our rural location, and declining enrollment have combined to produce an unsustainable economic mode…”

Declining enrollment and small size indeed: 225 students, according to Knox News, and 21 faculty, according to Wikipedia.  33 students will graduate in May, according to Inside Higher Ed. Very, very small.

Not cited in the outgoing notice was an accreditation struggle a decade ago.  I don’t know how that impacted Hiwassee’s enrollment.

There is much I’d like to know about the Hiwassee College closure (and I do hope people who have better information hit the comment box below).  How much lower is their enrollment now compared to the past generation?  Did church support change?  Did the administration consider other steps short of closure?

As one instance of American higher ed in crisis or transition, Hiwassee College may well represent another argument against small scale, as well as another indicator of the decline of rural America.

Additionally, if it recruited students from an area producing fewer of them, and didn’t shift in time, we could see it as its outgoing trustees do: as a demographic casualty.  Consider the demographics of Tennessee and its surrounding area, in Nathan Grawe’s research:

Grawe_Forecasted growth in high school graduates 2012 to 2032

(Knox News adds this quiet detail about Tennessean high ed:

Hiwassee College is the third East Tennessee school to close this academic year. Fountainhead College of Technology in Knoxville closed in October, and Knoxville’s Virginia College campus closed in December.)

The second story today isn’t about closure but another queen sacrifice.* Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, faced with enormous stresses, is closing many academic programs and laying off nearly one half of its faculty.  “20 of the 50 full-time faculty” are to go.  WJU declared financial exigency, in a public statement by president Michael Mihalyo.

Which departments are being cut?  According to one (also fired) professor, “programs being eliminated include biology, chemistry, English, communications, history, engineering, theology and fine arts.”  In addition, “philosophy, political science, physics and math were already cut from majors to minors and now they’re gone.”  That’s a lot of humanities on the floor.  The sciences are surprising, given the usual enrollment patterns of our time; perhaps they are failing to attract students for reasons we can’t make out now.

I’d like to focus on the departments that survive, the core that remains of the WJU curriculum.  Look closely:

The list of programs remaining includes Doctor of Physical Therapy, Master of Business Administration, Master of Arts in Education, Master of Science in Nursing… Respiratory Therapy, Exercise Science, Psychology, Criminal Justice, Education, and Business.

That’s a good glimpse of higher education strategic thinking in 2019.  Note how many are professional programs: nearly all, and maybe the whole lot, if we assume psychology is aimed at counseling service jobs.  There’s a strong STEM flavor to the group.  Allied health is nearly one half of the series – actually one half if we place psychology under that header. Two education degrees stand out; we may assume they are aimed at local or regional K-12 schools.

There isn’t a humanities program in the lot, although there are humanities elements in several: criminal justice, for example.

The WJU academics page lists a digital media and technology program.  That doesn’t seem like it will survive this curricular revision.

Meanwhile, athletics are apparently spared the ax.

What’s behind these extensive cuts?  Financial stress, of course, which seems likely to be largely driven by enrollment (see below).

In addition, a 2012 settlement with the federal government over misallocated NASA funds cost WJU $2.3 million.

Inside Higher Ed notes one unusual approach Wheeling took – is taking – to its financial problems:

In 2017, to cut costs and get out from under long-term debt, it sold its campus to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The university will subsequently lease back that campus. In exchange, the diocese paid off the university’s bond debt.

I don’t know if that’s helping WJU or not.

Wheeling Jesuit is larger than Hiwassee.  Wikipedia puts its 2016 enrollment as 1,289, which is quite a bit higher.  Inside Higher Ed puts its current class numbers at 929, citing federal government data.  If both of those stats measure the same thing, WJU is suffering from a serious enrollment hit.  If WJU recruits locally, it’s going to be running into the same demographic issues as Hiwassee (see Grawe’s map above).

What do these two stories suggest about higher education’s unfolding future?

First, we should obviously be cautious about generalizing from such a limited dataset.  These are just two campuses out of more than 4,000 in the United States.

Second, and however, they are not isolated cases.  America has long had a genius for creating small, local-to-regional campuses.  There are many right now, and we may well expect to see that number shrink.

Third, demographics may be biting already.  Tennessee and West Virginia, like the midwest and northeast, are producing fewer teenagers.  Schools like WJU and Hiwassee are fighting for a smaller market, unless they do something very different.

Fourth, look again at the new WJU curricular focus.  Think of how much is based on health care: physical therapy, nursing. respiratory therapy, exercise science.  Across the US I hear nothing but rising demand for the full range of allied health services.  Campus after campus is seeing student fill up these classes.  As American health care continues to be financially complex, massively unjust, and increasingly in demand (back to demographics again), we should see this tide continue to rise.  (Hence my Health Care Nation scenario.)

Listen to the other, surviving departments: business, criminal justice, education, psychology.  Again, professional fields in great demand.  Watch for more colleges and universities to focus on these with greater resources.  Watch for the opposite to happen as well.

*A queen sacrifice is my metaphor for when a college or university cuts tenure-track faculty.  This may occur through several means: declaring financial exigency, closing departments, ending programs, to name a few.

I chose the name from chess to indicate both the high value of tenure-track faculty within a campus, as well as an institution’s desperation in removing them from the board.

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9 Responses to Another campus closure, another queen sacrifice

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, I agree that the hollowing out of the US plays a big part in this College Meltdown.

    In terms of scaling though, does Taylorized higher education do a better job than local higher education? Are Purdue University Global and Liberty University better than the schools under siege?

    If so, we are in bigger trouble than many think, in terms of democracy.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great question about scale.
      In the US we have several ways of scaling up higher ed.
      First, through huge student bodies.
      Second, by large class sizes – i.e., lecture halls.
      Third, through some forms of online learning.
      The first two tend to be local. So does the third, although there’s no reason for it to be so.
      We’ve never had a national university.

      But quality? That’s much harder to do – and to measure.

      • I wanted to jump in an offer a thought regarding measuring quality of online learning experiences; quality assurance and virtual teaching/learning are kind of “my jam”–it’s not only possible to measure quality; it’s absolutely necessary. This must be done within each institution and should be tied to their accreditation. Quality Matters is considered to be a well-respected resource for developing solid online courses; it’s a good place to start but there are multiple quality checks and data points that must be considered before, during, and after instruction. Many institutions view virtual courses/programs as a “cash cow” but few realize how much time & effort it takes to provide experiences that are truly high quality.

  2. While there are many reasons for higher education institutions to fail, it seems that financial stability is #1, followed very closely by accreditation. And it cyclical, because most accrediting bodies have a standard that pertains directly to an institution’s ability to operate from a solid fiscal footing. If a college is struggling financially, they will also struggle with maintaining their accreditation. If they lose their accreditation, they lose their ability to receive federal financial aid. The doors close pretty rapidly after that. There are lots of reasons why institutions struggle financially—far too many to go into here. This may be a topic I take up soon in one of my own blog posts ( Thanks for your post—very interesting!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Thank you, Dr. Ross-Fisher.
      Do you think accreditors are tightening their processes and requirements now?

      • Well–I was–until a couple of years ago. I’m now seeing a disheartening trend in that regard; the emphasis now appears to be on loosening regulations rather than on tightening them. Also, I’m seeing a lot of changes designed to make things easier for for-profit institutions. I’m all for innovation and for new methodologies, but we have to make sure that the quality is there.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Loosening them? Now that is interesting.
          What’s the motivation, trying to keep colleagues’ campuses afloat?

  3. Alex Floate says:

    If you compare the remaining programs at WJU to Frey & Osborne (2013) estimated effects of automation/computerization, the categories are all in the lower likelihood of being automated. If the premise of their research is accepted, this appears to be a happy coincidence that the social/demographic situation today is at least forcing change towards occupations that may remain in demand for the next 20-30 years.

    How do you view the changes needed in education to meet the unknowable knowledge demands of tomorrow?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point, Alex.

      Education… it depends on the institution. Community colleges are already keenly responsive to labor needs. Elite universities are in a very different world, focusing often on preparing managers and owners; those leadership skills are shifting, but I think those institutions are responding.

      One key strategic element that’s missing is a careful attempt to look ahead and see emerging workforce changes.

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