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.
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.