Another college considers closing

Another American college is considering shutting down.  This time the campus is in Vermont (about 90 minutes from my house), the small College of St. Joseph.

College of Saint JosephIt’s an intense story with connections to the rest of American higher education.  There are some useful commonalities, along with certain local details.

To begin with, St. Joseph is suffering problems familiar to my readers, namely decreasing enrollment and (therefore) declining revenue.  They have a $2 million deficit.  Recently, according to the college’s president, “last year we started the school year with 199 full-time undergraduate students…We originally hoped to be over 250 for next year.”  They are “running at a deficit and have whittled away their endowment”, according to local reporter Gordon Dritschilo.

Recall that Vermont – and upper New England as a whole – are experiencing a drop in the teen population.  Traditional undergrad institutions have to either recruit more nationally and internationally or seek out adult learners (but see below).  We are also quite rural, a geography decreasingly attractive either to young people or economic growth.  CSJ is based in Rutland, which we call a city, but has barely 16,000 people and a median age of nearly 40.

The campus seems to be experiencing political unrest and division as part of this.  A WCAX report describes one group fearing violence during a meeting yesterday: “The Board of Trustees had planned to be there but canceled suddenly, fearing for their safety in front of the hostile crowd.”   I don’t know the campus well enough to comment on the likelihood of those trustees being subjected to actual violence, but do note the concern.

Those same trustees seem to have kicked off this story on their own, bypassing the administration by communicating directly to students, staff, and faculty:

The concern stems from an email sent to students last week by Board of Trustees Chair A. Jay Kenlan, in which he says closing is an option if the school cannot resolve financial problems…

[in contrast] The president of the college says the school is in financial trouble but not hopeless. President Larry Jensen tried to assure students and faculty that the College of St. Joseph is not shutting its doors.

Elsewhere on campus, back in October college faculty voted no confidence in the current president, who then agreed to “retire at the end of the academic year”, which is about now, according to VT Digger.  An external presidential search has been suspended.  Meanwhile, there’s a group pushing for one professor to become president:

In October… some faculty put forward Roger Weeden, head of the radiology department, as a replacement, but Jensen didn’t step aside, according to Chalidze. In February, Jensen gave notice he would retire at the end of the academic year. Again, some faculty supported Weeden for the post, but the board began an extensive national search for a new president. At the meeting, students held up posters promoting Weeden for president and chanted their support. Chalidze said the board has suspended the search, even though Weeden is willing to take over at a reduced salary.

One important detail: CSJ recently opened a physician’s assistant (PA) program.  This makes a lot of strategic sense, given the continued growth of the medical sector, including PA demand.  Yet St. Joseph couldn’t make it work.  It “didn’t take off”, according to VTDigger.  Apparently this is because of a certification failure, according to VPR; after this “the college took a bath” (an American slang term meaning “to lose a lot of money”).  A lesson for campuses seeking to expand medically: get certification done correctly!

Note that CSJ was founded in 1956.  Right in the midst of that great mid-20th-century decrease in income inequality, when America was the least economically unequal it ever had been.  That’s when we rebuild American higher ed, from the community college boom to launching federal financial aid to growing the number of people we thought should have post-secondary education.  That’s a large system built for a very different time than we have now.

What can we learn from this?  Once again, scale seems to be a problem for American higher ed, with our unusual population of small campuses becoming increasingly fragile, especially the non-elite ones.  Enrollment pressures continue to exert themselves, more so when driven by demographics.  Campus polities can splinter under such stresses.

Will the College of St. Joseph be snapped up by another entity, like the class of “buyer universities” Michael Horn described last week, or by a company?  Will a new leader quickly deploy a new strategy in time?  A queen sacrifice could well occur.

Consider this one datapoint from American higher ed, a datapoint among others pointing ahead to our future.

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5 Responses to Another college considers closing

  1. mkt42 says:

    “scale seems to be a problem for American higher ed”

    A college’s enrollment is certainly one of the fundamental statistics to pay attention to, but we need to be careful not to confuse cause and effect: some schools may struggle because they are small, but I suspect that even more are small because they are struggling (to attract students).

    There are many examples of the limited (though real) importance of scale. Someone, I think on LinkedIn, tried to argue that schools with fewer than 1,000 students are likely to struggle due to lack of scale. But I don’t think we are about to see the disappearance of schools such as Harvey Mudd College, the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute, and Deep Springs College with its enrollment of two dozen students.

    This is not to deny the very real correlation between small size and schools being more likely to close. But [insert truism about correlation != causality].

    The schools that are closing their doors are mostly small. But that does not mean that small schools are closing their doors.

    • Kyle Johnson says:

      My almost completely unscientific calculation but based on 20+ years in higher ed) is that schools that are less than 5000 students *and* have endowments of less than $250 million are all on the bubble. That’s based a great deal on what I call the t-shirt problem. When you print t-shirts, the first one costs you $85. But everyone after that is like $2. So you have to print at least 100 to be able to sell them at a reasonable price and cover your costs. Colleges are like that. The first student costs most of the money. It’s all the ones after that that help make the bottom line.

      Yes there will always be outliers that can make it (a 24 student college hopefully only has a few full time staff for instance), but for everyone else there’s a tipping point. We can argue the student numbers and the endowment, but there’s a definite break even point colleges have to hit.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        A question of marginal economics, Kyle?

        • Kyle Johnson says:

          I certainly think so. I know on the IT side (my area of expertise) the technology spending is more a factor of buildings than it is students, so my costs for equipment is the same as a college twice our size. And given the various specialized skills needed to run IT, there is a point at which you can’t have any fewer staff (even if you can outsource things). So the endowment has to be the buffer between your student count and (I’m arguing) 5000 students.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Quite true, mkt42. That’s why I qualified my statements with “especially the non-elite ones”, like the ones you mentioned (Harvey Mudd, etc.).

      It’s interesting to explore why small scale endangers some institutions now, as opposed to, say, 30 or 50 years back. What has changed, rising faculty and staff costs due to medical and retirement? “administrative bloat” – i.e., rising non-faculty costs?

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