More academic cuts: May 2024 edition

How are colleges and universities responding to financial and other pressures?

This year I’ve been tracking a series of institutional budget crises, spending cuts, layoffs, mergers, and campus closures. They seemed to spike in March (12, 3) and continued in April.  Now that May is over I can share what I observed in that month.

tl;dr version – closures, cuts, layoffs continued.

Today I’ll reuse the headers I set up in those previous posts, except for mergers, as I didn’t find any in May 2024.

1 Closing campuses

Eastern Gateway Community College (Ohio) (community college), founded in the 1960s,  will close this October 31.  Causes are a mix of a terminated online program, financial “irregularities” (federal search warrants, two leaders indicted in 2023), and running out of funds.

The Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD) (private art school) is closing nowReasons given included “a shrinking number of college-age students, rising operational costs, unexpected issues surrounding FAFSA.” Note the role of FAFSA in their explanation.

Philadelphia’s College of the Arts (private university) lost its accreditation and thereby decided to close.  The official reasons are financial in a classic sense, revenue shrinking and expenses growing:

UArts has been in a fragile financial state, with many years of declining enrollments, declining revenues, and increasing expenses. We have worked hard this year alongside many of you to take steps that would secure the University’s sustainability. The progress we made together has been impressive. Unfortunately, however, we could not overcome the ultimate challenge we faced: with a cash position that has steadily weakened, we could not cover significant, unanticipated expenses.

I was struck by the next sentence: “The situation came to light very suddenly.”  That suggests some communications problems, at least, within the institution.  The president added that enrollment was a problem.

The Oriental College of Medicine (OCOM: private graduate school in Chinese medicine, in Oregon) will close, citing declining enrollment, among other factors.  One of the latter is the local community:

The increase in crime, drug use, and people living unsheltered in Portland and, especially, in Old Town, due to the pandemic led to a steep decline in enrollment and gutted the college building’s value.

2 Campuses cutting programs and jobs

St. Cloud State University (public) announced plans for a major queen sacrifice, calling for shutting down programs and laying off faculty.

St. Cloud State University _Flickr photo by Ted Sherarts

Programs on the block:

SCSU administrators recommended discontinuing 46 of the university’s 136 degree programs, including criminal justice, Spanish, gender and women’s studies, sociology, physics, environmental science and economics.

They also proposed cutting 50 of 85 minor degrees, including African American and American Indian studies. Fifty-seven faculty positions would be cut, or 13 percent of the total.

13% of the faculty to be cut.  And why?

In an interview Monday evening, acting president Larry Lee said the cuts are necessary to address a structural budget deficit. The university lost $18 million last year and is projected to lose $5.5 million this year — a deficit made smaller by one-time state funding. Without it, SCSU’s net operating loss would have been $15 million, Lee said.

Notice that’s acting president Lee.  The previous president left just days before the university announced these cuts.

Albright College (private liberal arts college, Pennsylvania) is offering its own queen sacrifice, “cut[ting] 29 current staff and faculty positions, in addition to 10 staff positions and 14 faculty positions left vacant from resignations and retirement.”  That same report described the rationale solely as the campus being in a “challenging” time.

Interestingly, as with the case of St. Cloud, Albright’s president “stepped down” just before these cuts:

Fetrow has come under fire in recent months as students and faculty expressed concern over the school’s future, culminating in campus protests and growing calls for transparency.

Last month, the faculty of Albright held a vote of no-confidence in Fetrow and provost Karen Campbell, citing a lack of transparency regarding the school’s future and a lack of raises for faculty. [link in original; I removed bold font]

California State University-Monterey Bay (public university; Hispanic-serving institution) is making a series of cuts and related moves. Job cuts include “four management employees and 12 unionized staff.” 86 people took early retirement buy-outs.  Other actions include “restructuring departments, eliminating open positions and increasing the student faculty ratio to 28 students per faculty member.” The reason? “a roughly $12 million structural deficit the university has been working to decrease over the past two academic years. That deficit has been reduced to $4 million.”

Columbia College Chicago (private, art-focused) is revamping its entire curriculum, including the core curriculum, in the face of a financial crisis.  Higher Ed Dive estimates that process “will result in around a dozen faculty job losses.”  On top of that, “Columbia is reviewing 28 academic programs of concern,’ and resulting cuts could lead to additional faculty layoffs.”

More on that financial crisis:

Tasked with assessing the college’s financial situation, Columbia President Kwang-Wu Kim, who is set to step down in July, found that the state of its finances met the threshold for an “adverse circumstance” under its policy guidelines, which allows for the termination of tenured faculty members.

“A failure to address this Adverse Circumstance swiftly and comprehensively could become an existential threat if the college does not act now,” Kim said in the report.

The president cited falling enrollment, which is down 36% since 2013, with a student headcount of 6,529 in fall 2023. He also pointed to dwindling reserves and projected deficits of over $30 million annually in the years ahead if it takes no action on its budget. Fiscal 2024 has a projected $37.9 deficit.

Again, another president leaving around job cut announcements.

Northland College (private, Wisconsin) (which I wrote about in April) cut nine professors, or about 15% of the total, according to my estimate.  Northland made the cuts based on “program needs, tenure and seniority amid a revamp of the college’s curriculum.”  A key institutional note: “Leading the recommendation process was the college’s faculty ad hoc committee on financial exigency, which consulted with program directors and Northland officials.”

The reason?  Financial crisis.  Here’s the Wikipedia narrative:

In the spring of 2024, the college’s administrators publicly declared that the college was experiencing severe financial distress. In their call for donations, they declared that the college lacked the funding to remain open beyond the current academic year.[5] In the accompanying press release, administrators said that $12 million was required to keep the institution running.[6] On the day after the original fundraising deadline on April 3, the college declared financial exigency and delayed the deadline by two weeks. By that point, the college had raised US$1,500,000 from 900 donors.[7] On May 1st, the college officially announced that it would remain open under a restructured model to be implemented in the Fall 2024 semester.[8]

Don’t miss that declaration of financial exigency. The term gives administration much more latitude to act, including axing tenured faculty members.

Monroe Community College (upstate New York) is gearing up for faculty layoffs.  The reason?  Fiscal pressures.

St. Catherine University (private, Catholic; Minnesota) laid off 11 staff.  They include “six staff positions with the closure of its early childhood center and another five in various other units.”  They didn’t cut faculty, but:

St. Catherine said the employment of “a few” faculty members ended when their temporary contracts lapsed, but asserted it did not terminate or choose not to renew any contracts.  It also said “a number of” faculty retired this year and others have left for new jobs.

The reasons are a mix of finance and enrollment, typically:

The institution posted an operating deficit of $19 million for the fiscal year that ended May 2023 after racking up a $9.5 million deficit the year before, according to its latest financials. Total revenues decreased by about $6.5 million year to year year while expenses rose by $3 million. Tuition revenue, specifically, fell 7.7% from fiscal 2022 to fiscal 2023.

St. Catherine had 3,577 students in fall 2022, down 24.3% from 2017 and about a third from 2010 levels, according to federal data.

In addition, courts charged a former St. Kate’s dean with embezzling nearly half a million dollars.  “Not helping financial matters,” as Higher Ed Dive puts it.

Columbus State Community College (Ohio) is cutting 14 positions.  According to a cited statement, none of those people were instructors, so presumably they are – were – some kinds of staff. They are also reviewing searches for open positions.  The rationale?  “Administrators say the college is running on a $6.8 million dollar budget short fall for fiscal year 2024. They point to several factors, including lower-than-expected enrollment.”

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

Alverno College (private, Catholic, women’s college; Wisconsin) is preparing layoffs.  “[W]ithin the next two months, it anticipates recommending to its Board of Trustees program changes and a reduction of its faculty and staff ‘to safeguard our financial sustainability.'”

Alverno College by Dave Reid

The Pennsylvania State University system (public universities) (all 24 campuses, or 20, or 19, depending on your count, not just the one with football) offered buyouts and early retirements to faculty and staff.  The rationale: to “attain a sustainable financial operating model.”

This could be a prelude to cuts.  As the official FAQ notes: “Involuntary layoffs and non-reappointments could occur in the future and could include people who are eligible for this Program.”

The president of the University of New Orleans (public research university) asked departments to cut their respective budgets by 15%.  No word on job cuts, but the president “said she believes UNO can make cuts without impacting student experience while maintaining the university’s goal of providing a student-centered research facility.”

Drake University (private university, Iowa) will cut three academic programs as part of an effort to balance its budget.  The programs are an East Asian studies minor, a graduate certificate program in evidence-based healthcare, and a religion major.  Note that closing these problems is the flip side of starting others, namely “an artificial intelligence major, cybersecurity minor and accelerated nursing program.”

Whitworth University (private, Presbyterian; Washington state) seems to be preparing to cut instructors.  A spokesperson emailed Inside Higher Ed:

“In light of our current student population size, university administrators, faculty and staff have evaluated program offerings, operations and employment budget lines… In order to achieve budget alignment, we have selectively reduced the size of our teaching staff for the next academic year.”

One more story: the Higher Learning Commission accreditor is reportedly “working to more quickly identify signals of a college in distress.”  It sounds like HLC is doing some important research on this score.

What can we learn or deduce from these stories?

I’ve written about this kind of thing for years and don’t want to repeat myself too much, so today I’ll add only a few notes:

I think it’s clear that the queen sacrifice strategy continues to be one at least some administrations find useful in financial crises.

None of these institutions are among the post-secondary elite.  Their names will often be unfamiliar. They don’t have grand endowments to draw upon, nor national reputations to use in requesting gifts.  This will reduce media coverage and academic attention, which is massively unfair.

I note that some of these stories involve presidents exiting. I’d really like to learn more about this kind of thing.  How often does a president refuse to make cuts, and their board kicks them out as a result, hiring someone to wield the ax?

I am curious that one campus cited the FAFSA debacle as a reason.  How many other institutions view their enrollment woes in this light?

Note the importance of curricular overhaul in many of these stories.  Changing what’s taught and, perhaps more importantly, reflecting on how many instructors and staff are involved in offerings various programs, can be a straight line to reductions as well as new hires.

Note, too, that for most of these institutions the financial problems are chronic.  Enrollment declines stretch over years. One semester’s cuts don’t always solve the fiscal problem.

Final observation: I’ve cited a lot of statistics here.  I’ve pointed to many institutional structures. But these are all also human stories, concerning people whose careers are damaged, whose livelihoods are endangered. These are narratives of personal blight.  We cannot lose site of this essential truth.

I’ll stop here.  Please let me know if I missed any incidents.  And I welcome the stories of any individuals or groups impacted in these sorry events.

(thanks to Jay Sieling, Len Warner, Lee Skallerup Bessette, and more friends.  Also, bravo to Inside Higher Ed and Higher Ed Dive who do great work on this sad score)

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11 Responses to More academic cuts: May 2024 edition

  1. donald Clark says:

    What strikes me about this thorough report is:
    1. Oddball Crime, Chinese medicine (really?)
    2. Relatively small job losses for a sector that has seen large drops in enrolments.
    3. Failure to plan, assess risks and forecast.
    Doesn’t seem that severe, given the demographic shifts.

  2. Ricardo Magon says:

    The MCCCD system in Arizona might be next if an expenditure limit is not approved by voters this Fall. If not, there might be a $100,000,000 cut to a ten college system. Google: Maricopa Community Colleges Proposition 486.

  3. One of the problems with Higher Ed financial management is understanding the true financial performance of Academic Programs, it’s tricky to get this performance because of the many-to-many relationship between programs and courses and not just from the one school/department, it can easily cross over multiple schools/departments. Most financial analysis is top down, breaking the university financials across campuses, schools and then maybe programs, but hardly ever down to courses. The financial performance of programs might be looked at in detail every 3-5 years, which is far too long given how quickly things are changing. Also, most analysis is direct cost only, that is the costs that the school or department control and not looking at overhead. Overhead is now 50% or greater in most institutions and although might not be considered essential for school level financial management, it is vital for institutional analysis. By developing bottom-up models, starting with individual courses/sections (when, where, how taught), then rolling up to programs, then schools, campuses and the institution, you get a much better understanding of the internal economics of the institution. This level of detail isn’t required when things are going well, when the top-level financials show that more money is coming in that is being spent. It’s when things start to turn, that the signal that things are bad is usually hidden in the complexity of the institution and in some cases it may be too late to course correct appropriately. Cutting programs is an option, but institutions need to be careful, this approach may cut SOME cost, but it also removes ALL revenue, and the overhead is simply redistributed over fewer programs, so institutions could get themselves into a worse financial position. Also identifying the financial performance of individual courses can provide guidance on certain actions that can be taken. As an example, institutions may simply look at low enrolment courses and remove them assuming they are loss making, however, low enrolment courses could still be profitable if you can properly calculate it. You may be better off identifying high enrolment courses that are loss making and review the teaching methodology of a few of these, this may have a bigger positive financial impact than removing low enrolment courses.

  4. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    The Eastern Gateway Community College scam was egregious —
    Eastern Gateway Community College (EGCC) in Ohio offered a “Free College Benefit Program” that allowed students affiliated with **labor unions** to earn a degree without paying tuition, fees, or book costs after federal and employer grants were applied. Of course, something like this was too good to be true.

    Ever body was happy — the “free college” program launched in 2015 and fueled massive enrollment growth at EGCC, from around 4,800 students in 2015-16 to over 30,000 by 2022!
    For SEVEN GLORIOUS YEARS, every single soul in the land of Eastern Gateway looked the other way amidst the “free college” craze, their eyes glazed over by visions of academic plenty dancing in their heads like sugar plum fairies.
    Not a single wise soul pointed out that the Emperor’s clothes, nay, the entire wardrobe of this so-called “free college” scheme, was more threadbare than a moth-eaten tunic! They turned a blind eye to the naked truth that this “miracle” was about as legitimate as a three-dollar bill, signed by the ghost of P.T. Barnum himself!
    For SEVEN LONG YEARS, they frolicked and gamboled in the land of make-believe, where tuition was as free as the air, and financial irregularities were mere fairy tales to be dismissed with a wave of an administrator’s hand and a merry laugh!
    But now they are ON THE STREET or LOOKING FOR A JOB.
    (Whew! Thank you AI Perplexity for filling in the details!)

    What was once hailed as an ambitious initiative to provide accessible education has crumbled into a cautionary tale of unchecked ambition, disregard for regulations, and a complete breakdown of oversight. The leadership team and board of trustees willfully ignored red flags raised by the U.S. Department of Education and accrediting bodies — instead of addressing legitimate concerns about the program’s funding model and potential misuse of federal aid, they chose to forge ahead, blinded by the allure of rapid enrollment growth and the promise of “free college.”
    The sad, sad story of Eastern Gateway is a cautionary tale for us all, an example of how unbridled ambition and academic groupthink can play out.

  5. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, check this out. This is what we saw last September with non-elite state universities. Imagine what we see this September…..

  6. Mike Richichi says:

    UArts lost its accreditation after they notified MSCHE that they were closing with only a week’s notice, because you don’t do it that way.

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