Amid a raft of small colleges closing and merging in Massachusetts—17 in the past five years—the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education signed off on a plan to allow the Department of Higher Education to intervene when private, non-profit colleges are in danger of failing.
That the Board and Department would pay greater attention to this issue makes sense given the realities that there will be many more college failures in the years ahead and given the mishandled closing of Mount Ida College in Massachusetts.
What will be the impact of this step?
Already, the president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts has said that more rules are not necessary and could be
I’m generally sympathetic to that logic, despite cries from the media for policymakers to devise a new solution to bad behavior. But given the number of failures likely to occur, I think some increased monitoring by Massachusetts higher education officials is a good idea.
So what are the likely implications of the new rules that allow the Department to take publicly available data for all non-profit colleges, run it through a formula to see which are in danger, talk privately with those at-risk to see if the situation is changing in a positive way and, if not, then require the college to come up with a contingency plan to transfer its students and notify current and accepted students about the situation?
I see several possibilities:
1. It will help the Commonwealth stay ahead of trouble spots. Although Mount Ida broke existing rules, the state was caught off-guard.
2. It could hasten the demise of private, non-profit colleges. Once a college informs its current and accepted students that it is in trouble, why would those students stay?
3. It could give presidents at colleges the political cover they need to innovate. Sometimes presidents at small colleges can’t innovate and create new business models to support the institution because various stakeholders—faculty, alums—don’t believe there’s a real problem. This could change the equation.
4. It will set a model for the nation. Other states will follow Massachusetts’ lead and set up similar rules, particularly those in New England and the Midwest where there are most likely to be college failures.
5. It will accelerate a shift whereby Massachusetts looks more like states in the West. States in the West are dominated by public institutions and have far fewer private, non-profit colleges and universities than Massachusetts and the greater New England area, where private, non-profit colleges and universities have a much larger presence.
6. UMass-Amherst, UMass-Boston and UMass Online will be opportunistic and look to pick up the slack. Look for them to take advantage of the void to grow, innovate, and try to build prestige.
7. The demise of small colleges could level the playing field for low-income students. This is controversial because many of the colleges that fail will predominantly serve low-income students so one could argue that there will be less access to college. More likely I think is that the failure of schools that largely serve low-income students could create room for more diverse schools to grow and serve these students, much as Arizona State University has shifted its mission to measure success not by whom it excludes, “but rather by whom it includes and how they succeed.” It would not surprise me to see some campuses in the UMass system follow suit.
8. It will help students have more viable choices going forward, even as it accelerates the reduction in the number of state-supported private options.