Finding New Life

Figuring out how to use a closed or closing college campus is a challenge -- one often falling on the same leaders who had to shut it down in the first place.

December 2, 2019
 
College of Saint Joseph
The College of Saint Joseph in Vermont closed its doors this spring.

The College of Saint Joseph’s campus totals over 118 acres in Rutland, Vt., more than 70 percent of which is undeveloped hemlock, pine, hardwood forest and wetlands.

Anyone inclined could run a short race -- a 5-K -- on a trail connecting the college’s main campus to its west branch. The main campus is made up of six buildings, while the site to the west has five, not counting ancillary structures.

The campus has recently been reimagined as a possible example of what’s called new ruralism, or a “holistic approach to invigorating rural America.” It could be home to educational programs, workforce development offerings and space for accelerator programs, offices, third-party programs, and those who want co-working or co-living space.

A reimagining is under way because the College of Saint Joseph shut down operations this spring after running afoul of its accreditor amid a string of financial struggles and enrollment difficulties. The college, small by any standard, had been seeking to enroll 235 full-time undergraduates. It managed just 152 undergraduates and 75 graduate students as of fall 2018, according to federal data measured months before Saint Joseph announced in March that it would shut its doors.

Saint Joseph is one of several small private liberal arts colleges across the country to have suffered that fate in recent years. In many of those cases, leaders are left wondering what to do with the shuttered campus. Under the wrong circumstances, buildings can remain locked and quads can lie fallow for years as banks try to recoup unpaid debts or brokers seek buyers who are willing to invest in land filled with outdated or dilapidated buildings.

A single blueprint doesn’t exist for repurposing or reinvigorating a closed campus. But when a traditional institution stops functioning as a four-year college, it invites an important set of questions: Where do you start the discussion, and how can remaining boards forge a future that honors their history without being overly constrained by memories of the past?

“Here we are,” said Jennifer Scott, the president of the College of Saint Joseph and a trustee there. “It is going to happen all over the country, and people have just got to rethink education in general and broaden their ideas about what education is.”

Finding a Future

The vision for the College of Saint Joseph campus was unveiled last month in a feasibility study that recommended a public-private partnership. It remains far from realized.

A business plan must be built, and investment must be attracted. That leaves the campus stuck between the possibilities of tomorrow, the constraints of today and the story of its past.

Just getting to this point, when leaders can seek investment and public momentum, was an important process.

The College of Saint Joseph had no way to continue in its old form -- offering four-year degrees -- after its accreditor revoked recognition. Losing accreditation is a death sentence for most four-year colleges, because it removes their ability to receive the federal financial aid funds that most students need to pay tuition.

Board members had to suspend degree-granting programs, Scott said. The college had some certificate programs, but they didn’t bring in enough revenue to keep up operations.

In order to seek a path forward, leaders considered the organization’s purpose.

“The most logical solution was to continue the educational offerings that do not require accreditation,” Scott said. “So it began there, with a thought of what would we offer? What do we have the talent to offer? What does the community need?”

Conversations between community and state leaders led to a search for partners interested in working with the college. That brought Vermont Works, an investment firm, and Vermont Innovation Commons, a benefit corporation that is a project of Vermont Works, into the picture.

Ideas grew for trying to offer education to a wide range of students, keep Vermonters in the state and attract new residents, Scott said. The direct path from high school through college to employment isn’t necessarily what employers or students want anymore. Professional skills, technical skills and experience are being emphasized much more today than they were in the recent past.

Such a re-envisioning was likely possible in part because the college had been forced to shut down. Running a small nonprofit four-year institution means thin margins, inflexible costs and a need to keep bringing in new freshman classes. The need for momentum and the busy days can make it hard for leaders to change course.

Now, the college is essentially a start-up company itself, according to Scott.

“We are starting from the ground up,” she said. “Other institutions that may be struggling financially yet still offering programs have quite a bit more to consider in terms of what direction they take and how hard it is to change direction when they have ongoing course work and students in degree programs.”

The vision for the future is consistent with the college's mission and the values of its founding sisters, according to Scott. It’s a critical point for an institution that traces its history back to education carried out by the Sisters of Saint Joseph as they trained their own members and built a teachers' college decades ago.

Still, partners in the plans for the campus’s future have large ambitions. The college’s campus can be an anchor to drive a rural renaissance, according to Dennis Moynihan, program director at Vermont Innovation Commons and a co-author of the Saint Joseph feasibility study.

Moynihan pitches a vision of a rural America revived by a quality of life that is attractive to young professionals. They can work remotely or start companies while avoiding the snarled, expensive existence that is living in a metropolis like New York, Boston or San Francisco.

It doesn’t have to be hugely profitable to work. The project does have to be self-sufficient.

“The whole point of this is to create a commercially viable model that will attract private investment as well as public funds,” Moynihan said. “The problem with other approaches, typically, is you wait for the city or state to make an investment, public funds, and they’re stretched thin and they’re not going to prop us up, necessarily. So how do you unlock other kinds of money?”

Moynihan acknowledges the college’s rural setting is a challenge. It means long commutes and likely slow uptake on the project. In fact, the feasibility study projects two years of deficit operations before positive returns in a third year for a reimagined campus it calls CSJ Center for Excellence and Innovation.

The college’s current financial challenges must be addressed, and it must retain its tax-exempt status for the plans to successfully attract investment, according to the feasibility study. Conventional commercial or residential space use wouldn’t receive tax exemptions.

A boost is that the project would be located within a federal Opportunity Zone, opening it up to capitalize on attractive tax credits for investors.

“Though the program itself is somewhat complicated, our initiative would likely be a national leader in supporting rural startup companies and thus also likely be a beacon for attracting meaningful financial grants and venture philanthropy, augmenting the investment benefits created under the nationwide Opportunity Zone program,” the study says.

Over all, Moynihan said colleges in similar situations should think bigger than they do normally.

“What I have found is in the final phases of these colleges, when they look for a response, they tend to look to an educational response,” he said. “Can they partner with another college and co-teach? Can they get someone to buy their online courses? I don’t think they’re thinking far enough outside the box.”

A Planning Problem

Across the country, the idea of repurposing closed or closing colleges is a critical planning problem, according to experts. College leaders need to be considering their prospects for the future and whether different models can help them fulfill their institutions’ missions, said Nicholas Santilli, senior director for learning strategy at the Society for College and University Planning.

“If people are not thinking about the environment realistically and they are not planning for these kinds of events, they are not really being careful stewards of the institution,” he said.

It will likely not be a clean or clear process, Santilli added. The best ideas for a struggling or closed campus are unique to the region where it is located as well as to its original mission.

The question is particularly important in rural areas where private liberal arts colleges can be centerpieces of communities and economic anchors.

“One of the things to think about is what kinds of things can you provide with local partnerships, with industry, to build some type of workforce development programming, for instance?” Santilli said. “You may not have to be accredited but can be a convening place for programming to serve the local area.”

Others bring up similar situations outside of the higher education sector. Shopping malls and public schools that have closed both bring up questions of finding ways to repurpose shuttered public or semipublic assets, said Lynn Priddy, provost and chief academic officer at National American University. Priddy has firsthand experience with closing campuses at the for-profit institution.

“The way I see higher ed as different is you typically have acreage that’s gorgeous,” Priddy said. “It’s typically very wooded with lots of pathways. There is much more public use. There are residential sections, which would open up things like senior centers or conferences or homeschooling activities. It doesn’t have to be the same age group.”

But if the goal is to develop another four-year college, the country is already arguably overbuilt.

“The problem with governing boards -- and I would be right there with them, as I think all of us would be -- it’s so palatable, what you dreamed and wanted it to be,” Priddy said. “When you recreate it, you recreate some of the same elements that caused it not to be successful in today’s context.”

Others disagree. Leaders worked to revive another college named after Saint Joseph -- this one in Rensselaer, Ind. -- after it suspended operations under financial pressure in 2017.

Leaders at Saint Joseph’s College undertook fundraising efforts as part of what one official called a “crawl-walk-run” plan to revive it. They started a two-year venture with another Roman Catholic college in Indiana, Marian University, which helped with accreditation.

“Accreditation was a big issue,” said Bill Hogan, who this fall resigned as vice president for advancement at Saint Joseph's College, joining two other officials who left the college amid vague talk of differing visions. “The biggest issue was when they suspended our accreditation, it added another layer of difficulty.”

The Marian venture had 33 students this fall, according to a Marian spokesman.

Saint Joseph's College has yet to realize its goal of re-establishing operations at its campus. It has previously publicized aspirations to have students enrolled at the campus in 2021-22.

“There were opportunities to change into something else,” Hogan said. “The Precious Blood Order, who were sponsors of the college, decided they were not interested in selling it. They wanted to bring some type of St. Joe’s college back.”

Elsewhere, another Roman Catholic college is in the middle of a planned closure that will repurpose its campus without it ever going dark.

Marygrove College in Detroit tried to stay open by cutting undergraduate education and focusing on graduate and professional programs. But after eliminating undergraduate programming at the end of 2017, it announced plans to shut down at the end of this year. Its last commencement will be Dec. 14.

Marygrove has been moving toward a “cradle-to-career” model under a plan involving numerous partners like the Detroit Public Schools Community District and the Kresge Foundation, which backed the venture with a $50 million commitment. Those plans continue. A public school has opened with ninth graders and is set to scale up over coming years. The Marygrove Conservancy was created to preserve the campus and manage it.

“We all have the goal of education, and we all have the goal of helping each other,” said Elizabeth Burns, Marygrove’s president.

Marygrove leaders aren’t even contemplating starting another college, although they do think bringing in other existing community colleges or universities is a key idea.

“I think we’re going to see if somebody wants to do a residential college, utilize the residence hall or something like that as one of the colleges in their university,” Burns said. “But it needs to be part of an established, already accredited, college, I think.”

Today, Kresge regularly facilitates meetings between different partners on campus. The campus is still active, with 118 students in the high school and others coming and going for various classes and events.

“It’s alive,” Burns said. “We’ve got kids here.”

The campus is still benefiting the community, Burns said. It’s an idea her counterpart at the College of Saint Joseph in Vermont also brought up: think about the community if it becomes time to repurpose a college.

“One thing that was important for people to do up front is talk to people in the community,” Scott said. “Get the community involved in the solution. I think all too often, the colleges feel that it’s up to them to do it and they are the ones who have to come up with the solution or the path forward. And they can’t do it alone.”

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