Letter From A College President

Many, many colleges are working with a business model that simply cannot sustain them, and tinkering around the edges

The problem is compounded because so many college leaders can barely discern the symptoms of the malaise and are blind to their underlying, rampant and immutable causes. It is only natural that those who have trained to manage the status quo first and foremost long for its return. In no other industry — with the possible exception of organized religion — is so much wealth entrusted to people so unequipped to manage it.

 

The announcement of the closing of Marian Court College, with faculty disclaimers (“didn’t realize it was as dire as it was,” and the president’s dreaming (“hopeful the college would remain open”), should pull us back to the realities that have been set out very clearly for years — by the Bain Report, by Clayton Christensen, by Thomas Frey, by Nathan Harden, by dozens of others:

Many, many colleges are working with a business model that simply cannot sustain them, and tinkering around the edges with defective enrollment management software, combined majors, a part-time (as yet unaccredited) M.B.A., or Saturday classes is almost a distraction from the main challenges of shrinking demographics, low-cost online instruction and skills validation, and the imminent tightening of government money that has been pouring into the mix.

The problem is compounded because so many college leaders can barely discern the symptoms of the malaise and are blind to their underlying, rampant and immutable causes. It is only natural that those who have trained to manage the status quo first and foremost long for its return. In no other industry — with the possible exception of organized religion — is so much wealth entrusted to people so unequipped to manage it.

The shock is not that the college closed — it is that no one saw it coming.

But Marian Court was not unique. It was among the country’s vulnerable institutions, and there are hundreds of them: tuition dependent, with enrollments under 1,000, small or shrinking endowments, significant tuition discounts, high admission rates with low yields, and low retention rates.

St. Bridget’s also fits these metrics. It is a private, coeducational, not-for-profit liberal arts college in the Northeastern U.S.: a fictional composite based on real institutions like Marian Court — some now closed and some that will close, although they don’t know it yet.

What all have in common is the lack of a full grasp of their true financial situations.

As at St. Bridget’s, at many institutions the administration and even the Board of Trustees will claim they did not have all the necessary data and did not recognize the looming threat to the college until it was too late.

And faculty — who work with research and analysis every day in their professional lives — may not have asked the right questions, or did not insist on honest and complete answers.

How many could not bear to put aside that tenure-track research on Theosophy or the ring-tail lemur to learn about boring subjects like deferred maintenance, debt overhang and bond interest rates? Surely some were living on hope: “next year our enrollment numbers will be up,” or “we’re in line for that federal grant that will help us attract veterans.”

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