One university to close, another lays off faculty, and two more will merge

How is American higher education faring in an era of sustained challenges and possible decline? This morning Inside Higher Ed offered three (3) stories about campuses taking drastic steps.

First, Iowa Wesleyan University’s president floated the prospect of closing that institution.  According to Steven Titus, IWU is simply running out of money.

The university does not have a healthy endowment or extensive donor network. We have attempted to secure funding to establish a solid financial base. Unfortunately, several anticipated gifts simply have not materialized. At this moment, the university does not have the required financial underpinnings to bridge the gap between strong enrollment and new programming, and the money needed to keep the institution open. [emphases added]

The endowment is too small to help, and development seems to have failed.  In addition, Titus cites this context: “small liberal arts colleges and universities across the country continue to face significant financial challenges.”

Note, too, the emphasis not on a national or international student body and institutional reach, but on a very local setting:

We have struggled, yet survived, for decades because of our strong commitment to our students and the southeast Iowa region…

These decisions may have a profound impact on students, faculty, staff members as well as the entire southeastern Iowa community. Iowa Wesleyan’s economic impact to the southeastern Iowa region is over $55 million annually.

Unusually, student numbers don’t seem to be a problem, according to IWU’s president: “[o]ur enrollment has doubled, student retention has increased…”  Without knowing much about their financials, I would hazard a guess that their student numbers have increased, but at the price of lots of aid and a rising discount rate.  In other words, greater enrollment but not increased revenue.

Second, two Oregon art colleges are going to merge. The Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art will become one new institution.  OPB cites “a national trend toward lower enrollment and rising costs.”  For example,

OCAC Interim President Jiseon Lee Isbara indicated financial factors led her college to the negotiation table.

“By any measure, OCAC is in a place that needs to explore proactive solutions for a sustainable future,” Isbara said. “The current higher education environment has proven to be precarious. We believe the merger will strengthen the merged colleges’ future.”

The article also mentions national context: “the pain that’s hit higher education in recent years.”

Will any faculty or staff cuts occur?  That seems likely, if realizing economic efficiencies are in order.

Third, another queen sacrifice: Savannah State University, a historically black institution, will lay off twenty-six (26) faculty.  That’s about 6% of 385 full-time instructors, according to Wikipedia.

Why is this happening?  Declining enrollment as well as declining state support:

Officials announced that the university would be “realigning its resources” in light of two consecutive years of declining enrollment and state-allocated funding. The university’s enrollment saw a 10.6 percent decline in fall 2017 and a 7.9 percent decline in fall 2018.

For state support, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports these figures: “Savannah State’s total budget declined from nearly $121 million from the fiscal year that ended June 30 to about $107 million this fiscal year, according to state data.”

I haven’t been able to find out which departments are suffering the cuts.  At least one source claims the riffed professors are not tenured; it’s not clear if they were on or off the tenure track.  (This source also finds them to be non-tenured)

None of these campuses are elite institutions.  They won’t receive the sustained media scrutiny and academic discussion that attends every move by Harvard or Stanford.  But they represent thousands of human lives, as well as academic institutions every bit as meaningful.  We must not allow American post-secondary education’s pecking order to drive them from our consideration.

Queen sacrifice, merger, closure: these are examples of trends I’ve been tracking for years, as my faithful readers know.  Each of these stories comes from a distinct campus with its particular local contours, but the trends are nation-wide and persistent.  The forces of changing enrollment and declining state support continue to wreck havoc.  The American higher ed crisis rolls on.

Are we in the midst of a market correction, as colleges and universities adjust painfully to the new order?  Is this kind of news now the new normal?

(thanks to Mark Rush and Matthew Henry)

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3 Responses to One university to close, another lays off faculty, and two more will merge

  1. Peter Shea says:

    “Are we in the midst of a market correction, as colleges and universities adjust painfully to the new order? Is this kind of news now the new normal?” My inclination is to answer in the affirmative.

    In the United States, we have long connected personal prosperity with a college degree. But what if the success of the most recent generations was more attributable to the unusually robust American economy from 1945 through, say, 1983? Perhaps we overestimated the value added by the college experience. Maybe the college degree was more of a benefit of that economy than a root cause of it.

    In any event, we are left with a tradition of trying to get everyone to achieve a college degree even when the degree confers no particular advantage (other than avoiding the stigma of being an adult with a college-validated education).

    • Peter Shea says:

      I meant to say, “an adult without a college-validated education.” 🙂

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        (Got it)
        Do you think we’ll see rising interest in getting to work without college experience?
        There are many fields where one can enter the middle class without debt, from carpentry to HVAC.
        There is also rising cultural support for such work, including from people like Mike Rowe.

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