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“In the last five years, 15 institutions [of higher learning] have closed or merged in Massachusetts.”

That line was buried somewhere in the long middle of this story. For full effect, imagine the record-scratch sound upon reading it. (For younger readers, substitute the “dramatic chipmunk” video.)  It’s an alarming number.

It came in the context of a story about a proposed law in Massachusetts that would require colleges to give advance notice to the state if they think they’re on the brink of economic collapse. Some private colleges -- most likely, the ones who think it might affect them -- are pushing back.

It’s probably a sign that I’ve been in these roles a while that I actually get their argument.

When the City College of San Francisco had its near-death experience with its accreditor several years ago, the short-term effect was a double-digit percentage drop in enrollments. Prospective students made the individually rational calculation that they’d rather not spend time, money, and effort making their way through programs at a college that might not exist in a year. CCSF successfully fought the accreditor and clawed its way back, but I was struck by the damage that the negative headlines did. The warning itself did damage, entirely independent of what triggered the warning.  It added injury to insult.

Had its finances been more precarious, the warning itself could have been the death blow.  

Higher education is a reputational industry. People distinguish a “good school” from a less-good one based on reputation, far more than on hard data. Negative headlines can do real and lasting damage, even if the headlines themselves are later retracted or rendered moot.  

If I were running a small, private college that was on the economic brink, the absolute last thing I would want to do would be to advertise its precarity to the world.  That prophecy could quickly become self-fulfilling. A warning intended to protect current students and staff could wind up hurting them by increasing the odds of bankruptcy.  

That’s particularly true if the college is in the midst of courting a large donor. Donors generally prefer to support things that are working than things that are dying.  If a college is buying time before the big funder comes in and saves it, but the state decides to tell the world that it’s on the brink of failure, the state may scare off the donor and guarantee the bad result that the college was trying to prevent. 

That said, there’s certainly an ethical obligation to current students and employees not to strand them. That means coming up with teachout plans for students, and giving employees as much notice as humanly possible if the end is near.  

I agree that many colleges have hit a level of precarity for which they’re unprepared, and I agree that campus closures can be devastating both to the displaced employees and to the towns in which the campuses are located. But I’d have to be convinced that requiring several months’ notice would solve the core problem. If anything, it might make it worse. The core problem is the sustainability of the enterprises themselves, particularly in regions like New England where private higher education is thick on the ground and 18 year olds aren’t. 

It’s possible to shift risk, but it can’t be legislated away. This seems like a well-intended emotional response to a structural problem, rather than a policy that would actually help.  I get the appeal, emotionally, but it seems likely either to be ineffectual or to do harm. I’d advise against it.


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