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Title

When Colleges Die

The past few weeks have brought a rash of announcements of colleges either dying or coming to the brink of death, but I’ve been struck by the different ways that different deaths have been covered.

December 16, 2018
 
 

The past few weeks have brought a rash of announcements of colleges either dying or coming to the brink of death, but I’ve been struck by the different ways that different deaths have been covered.

When a college dies, all sorts of stakeholders are affected. In the case of relatively traditional colleges, such as Newbury College in Massachusetts, I’d expect to see students transfer to other places and employees struggle to find other jobs. (Given the generally difficult employment market in higher ed, especially in the Northeast, that’s no small thing.) The assets of the physical campus will, I assume, go to creditors in one form or another.  I don’t know the legalities of how endowments and contributions pan out; ideally, I’ll never need to.

Colleges like Newbury, Wheelock, Burlington, and Dowling fell victim to difficult economics, difficult demographics, intense competition, and, in some cases, their own flawed decisions. (I’m thinking here of Burlington’s ill-advised expansion attempt.)But they weren’t frauds. Each one actually tried to fulfill its mission as best it could. In Wheelock’s case, to its credit, it was able to fold itself into something stronger. (Cumberland County College, here in New Jersey, is trying something similar.) The people who no longer have a place to study or work have taken real hits, but nobody in particular is the villain. Sometimes, circumstances conspire. The stories told are of faculty struggling to find work and/or retiring early, students transferring to second choices, and the inexorable march of demographics.

The narrative is different when for-profit (or formerly for-profit) colleges close. When that happens, as with the Art Institutes, it’s usually covered as a financial story. The recent IHE story on the EDMC colleges -- taken over last year and converted to nonprofits by the Dream Center -- quotes financial analyst Trace Urdan at length, but doesn’t interview any students or employees. 

At one level, of course, I get that. The EDMC/Dream Center schools were a weird story.  When news broke of their takeover by a Christian group determined to remake them as secular nonprofits, I wrote a piece about it entitled “I Honestly Don’t Get This.” I couldn’t make sense of the motivation, and I couldn’t see how it would work. I mention this not in the spirit of “I told you so,” but to highlight just how weird the saga was. To some degree, focusing on the finances makes sense because they’re just so unusual. In some cases, it’s also relatively straightforward to identify a villain or two.

But those colleges also have students and employees.  In some cases, depending on accreditation status, students of collapsed for-profits can be particularly affected.  That’s because they’ve often taken on unusual amounts of debt, and their credits may or may not count for anything elsewhere.  (In some cases, proof of fraud can bring welcome debt relief for former students, though it does nothing for former employees.)  Employees face the same issues of looking for work as do former employees of, say, Dowling or Burlington.

That’s no small issue.  Although we almost never acknowledge it as an industry, part of the reason that for-profits were able to grow as quickly as they did for so long was that nonprofit universities had produced far more faculty than they consumed.  When I taught at DeVry, I had colleagues there with doctorates from NYU, UCSB, Yale, Rutgers, and NJIT, among others. Had traditional higher ed not moved so strongly in the direction of adjuncts, the DeVrys of the world wouldn’t have had such an easy time hiring good people.  A simple narrative of good guys and bad guys doesn’t capture it.

Yes, by all means, we should have compassion for the folks who’ve taught at Burlington, Dowling, and now Newbury.  We should do the same for those who taught at EDMC, Phoenix, and DeVry. Believe it or not, many of them came from the same places, and in a more rational market, could have landed elsewhere.  My own decision to work at DeVry came down to “any port in a storm,” and I don’t apologize for that. At the time, it was hiring full-time faculty; the “virtuous” nonprofits in the area were only hiring adjuncts.  From that angle, it’s tougher to identify clearly which one was the bad guy.

The collapse of EDMC is a massive financial story, but it’s also a story of unemployed faculty and staff who were doing the best they could.  And if its juxtaposition with Newbury tells us anything, it’s that tax status alone won’t save you. Storms happen to the just and the unjust alike.  And in this part of the country, the storm isn’t likely to pass anytime soon.

 

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