Business issues

Mount Holyoke and a handul of other private colleges freeze tuition for next year

Mount Holyoke joins a short -- but longer than usual -- list of colleges to freeze tuition. Moves could signal awareness of a limit to families' willingness to pay high sticker prices.

Brown dispute questions what's a fair payment in lieu of taxes

Rocky negotiations in Providence about how much Brown pays the city in lieu of taxes highlights the difficulty of determining an appropriate contribution.

UC system weighs shift in tuition payments to after graduation

Proposal being weighed by University of California to shift student payments to after graduation and tie them to income would be a dramatic change in how education is financed.

Alternative credentials create social and economic inequities and shouldn't be seen as replacing degrees (opinion)

File this one under "Be careful what you wish for."

After years of lobbying the federal government for regulatory leeway to spur “disruptive innovation” outside the boundaries of traditional colleges and universities, even some high-profile disruptors are balking at the aggressive deregulation agenda of Betsy DeVos’s U.S. Department of Education. New America, which only six short years ago published a white paper called “Cracking the Credit Hour,” is now defending the credit-hour rule and asking the federal government not to gut it. Inside Higher Ed blogger Matt Reed similarly finds himself in the “unanticipated and uncomfortable position” of standing up for the beleaguered credit hour, of which he has been critical. New America and Reed fear that DeVos and Co. have gone too far, opening the door to fraud and abuse.

The credit hour is not the only safeguard the Education Secretary has targeted. As Politico reported in March, DeVos’s department has already paused Obama-era regulations that punish poor-performing career colleges and offer loan forgiveness to defrauded students and is eyeing changes to accreditation procedures and to the requirement that distance programs ensure “regular and substantive interaction” between students and instructors. The New York Times is now reporting that DeVos is halting her department’s investigations into fraud by for-profit colleges.

The cautions of New America and Reed notwithstanding, there is surely much licking of chops among the edupreneurial set. For years, the prophets of disruption have been pressing their case that colleges and universities hold an unfair monopoly on the higher education market. Game-changing innovation, they insist, will be unleashed only when these slow-footed institutions are unbound, unbundled, disrupted. Regulations must be slashed and federal financial aid dollars made available to noninstitutional providers.

Now, at last, their day has come. Federal support for alternative credentials, including those noninstitutional providers offer, predates the current administration. Yet deregulation and “flexibility” with financial aid restrictions are accelerating quickly under this president, who himself settled a lawsuit for $25 million with students who claimed they had been defrauded by his now defunct university, and his education secretary, who is on record saying that Americans overvalue college degrees. Meanwhile, early indications suggest that the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act may expand access to apprenticeships and other training programs as alternatives to degrees and allow Pell Grant recipients to use their aid for short-term credentialing programs.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has shown in devastating detail in Lower Ed, diverting public funds from accredited colleges and universities to for-profit providers while removing safeguards against fraud and abuse amounts to a profoundly antidemocratic public subsidization of the exploitation of inequality. Instead of devoting public funds to increase access to reputable educational institutions and to address stubborn degree-attainment gaps for poorer students and students or color, we pay for-profit companies to capitalize on the ambitions and desperation of the most vulnerable among us, who are effectively forced into potentially predatory market relationships.

A recent study found that the “alternative credentials” marketplace teems with shady outfits operating outside any quality-assurance framework. The research also revealed racial disparities in attainment of and benefits derived from alternative credentials, undercutting claims by their champions that they promote social equality and mobility. Alternative credentialing, when pitched as a social progress program that replaces degrees, has the profoundly undemocratic potential of creating a second-class educational tier reserved mainly for the poor and people of color.

Meanwhile, degrees from reputable institutions are more valuable than ever. Even bracketing the wealth of personal and social benefits they bring to individuals, families and communities, such degrees “pay off.” The college wage premium, which had flattened in recent years, is at an all-time high and is likely to climb higher still. As Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has found, the vast majority of the millions of jobs created during the recovery from the 2008 recession have gone to degree holders, while there are millions fewer jobs for those with high school diplomas or less. Despite breathless but perhaps overstated reporting of the “skills gap,” the fact remains that employers require degrees for virtually all well-paying jobs.

Some call that degree inflation, but what we’re seeing is not that degrees are required for jobs where they were not required before or where they are not needed. It’s that jobs are changing. Artificial intelligence is automating broad swaths of the work force, and the “robot-proof” jobs that remain are requiring well-educated professionals, especially those who work at the human-technology interface.

Degrees and the institutions that offer them are not going away any time soon. Even disruptive innovators like Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda, whose company was hailed only a few years ago as a key player in the MOOC revolution that would dismantle colleges and universities as we know them, recently announced that the company is focused on partnering with those institutions. Coursera is “betting squarely on universities,” in Maggioncalda’s words, “and on the continued relevance, even dominance, of the degree as a master credential.”

If anything, the muddle of an increasingly complex alternative-credentials market may have the ironic effect of solidifying employers’ reliance on degrees from trustworthy institutions. In this context, a let-them-eat-alternative-credentials social policy is not only insufficient; it is cruel. It will make higher education even more of an engine of economic and racial inequality than it already is.

Needed: Expansion, not Replacement

We need high-quality educational and training options for those who truly don’t want degrees. But such options cannot replace degrees, and we should not use them as an excuse to ignore the social and economic inequities that make us believe that we know who the deserving are in the first place or that “desiring” a college degree is a purely personal and unfettered choice. Our goal should be to expand access to high-quality degrees and alternative credentials to as many learners as possible -- ideally in ways that promote the integration of learning across a variety of lifelong learning experiences and credentials.

All of which makes this a time of incredible opportunity for traditional colleges and universities. Even as many college leaders fret over projected regional decreases in the supply of 18-year-olds with means, the rapidly changing economic and social landscape ensures that lifelong learning is on the docket for virtually everyone. The question is, who is going to provide all this education?

Three universities have an idea. As they contemplate their futures, Northeastern University, Stanford University and Georgia Tech all envision themselves transcending their selective residential campus models to become global lifelong-learning networks. Northeastern, where I work, imagines diverse, inclusive networks that link faculty members, students, employers and alumni across several global campuses, or “intercultural hubs for lifelong learning.” Stanford fashions itself the “Open Loop University” in which students -- who apply whenever they are ready, not necessarily just out of high school -- loop in and out throughout their lives. Georgia Tech likewise projects “multiple entry and exit points” for learners who “associate with rather than enroll at” the university through a subscription model.

All three university visions feature personalized, flexible, lifelong educational experiences and services. In one sense, these future universities are “unbundled”: they involve suites of credentials and microcredentials alongside degrees. But at a deeper level, they are rebundled institutions, redesigned to integrate degree and nondegree learning experiences and credentials to help learners author their own coherent, integrated learning journeys.

Today it is uncommon for learners to enter into lifelong learning relationships with a college or university. Although nontraditional enrollments are growing rapidly, both in sheer numbers and as a percentage of overall enrollments at degree-granting institutions -- and millions more learners are completing certifications, licenses, workplace trainings and the like -- most institutions focus exclusively on providing two- and four-year degrees for young adults and maybe graduate degrees for slightly less young adults.

The colleges and universities of the future will continue to offer degrees, but they will be innovative and flexible enough to offer a variety of learning experiences and credentials when learners need them in formats those learners can fit into their busy lives. They will be responsible and credible enough to offer degree and nondegree credentials, perhaps in partnership with other institutional and noninstitutional providers, that learners and employers can trust. And they will be coherent and bundled enough to enter into lifelong relationships with learners, devoting their people and their technologies to guiding them on their integrative lifelong-learning journeys.

If colleges and universities can do all this, their future is bright. Who knows -- we may even look back on this moment as the beginning of the rebound of the re-bound college. For our students’ sake, for democracy’s sake, let’s hope so.

Chris W. Gallagher is professor of English at Northeastern University. The author or co-author of four books, he is currently completing a book on the unbundling and rebundling of higher education.

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Guild Education creates business as broker for employer-financed college degrees

Walmart and other large employers are turning to for-profit Guild Education to manage tuition-reimbursement programs. Walmart's offer promises a debt-free college education to its employees, but academic program choices are limited. 

How higher ed has to change to remain relevant in the future (opinion)

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call …
(Grace Slick, 1965)

It’s traditional graduation season, so it’s also the time for articles about the supposed gap between what colleges claim baccalaureate graduates know and can do and what the corporate, nonprofit and government sectors claim they need them to know and do. Higher education’s panicked response to those critiques has too often been to chase rabbits. Unfortunately, the rabbits are usually not innovative, creative curricular redesigns but rather a doubling down on increasingly less relevant and arbitrary collections of credits we call “degrees.”

Perhaps if we paid more attention to Lewis Carroll and Grace Slick, and the similar messages that employers send regarding the centrality of demonstrable skills like clear thinking to the success of their organizations, we would know that chasing rabbits is doomed, a harbinger of reality distorted. We would also have a better answer to the Caterpillar’s simple yet deceptively difficult question: “Who are you?”

Who are we indeed? Those people who expend considerable capital debating “job/career preparation” versus “education for civic and social life” (or some variation of that) as higher education’s raison d’être are missing the central point of the question. First, the answer never was one category or the other (read the exchanges between Benjamin Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania’s trustees for one U.S. historical perspective). Second, the traditional framing of this pseudodebate -- a four-year period during which all the requisite skills and knowledge needed for a happy, successful remainder of one’s life were supposed to be acquired -- is not just quaint, it is dangerous.

Arguably, the higher education version of the Caterpillar’s existential question is a variation of the fact that personal identity -- who we are -- takes a lifetime. So given that education itself is a lifelong endeavor, the fundamental question for higher education today is this: What are the actual building blocks that absolutely must be acquired at the early stages of higher education so that a person is adequately prepared to continuing building on that foundation?

Answering that last question forces a shift in perspective just enough to expose a fundamental absurdity of traditional approaches that focus on degrees and that gives legitimacy to the skills-gap indictment. For instance, most traditional institutions (those not using a competency-based mastery learning model) award baccalaureate degrees to students who complete 120 credit hours, give or take, at a 70 percent or better level of performance (i.e., at a grade of C or better). Set aside the anachronistic notion of a credit hour for the moment and focus on the minimum performance standard. You soon realize that those students who eke by with a 2.0 GPA (and a 30 percent performance gap) are awarded the same degree as those with a 4.0 GPA (minus, perhaps, a Latin-labeled honors notation).

What this says is that, in higher education’s judgment, it is perfectly fine to have not learned 30 percent of the information that the faculty members and professionals in any discipline decided was important enough to know -- such that it was included not just in the course materials, but was actually tested on examinations and other assessments. The degree is awarded anyway. I have asked, but have never received a satisfactory answer to, the question of which 30 percent it is permissible for a civil engineering student not to know, for example, about bridge building.

There are better, more rational, and more effective ways, and we’ve known about and practiced them for a long time. To ensure that those approaches stick this time, we must rid ourselves, once and for all, of at least three illusions (some observers would say delusions:

  1. that any higher education degree is truly meaningful in and of itself beyond its role as a proxy,
  2. that time per se is a relevant variable, and
  3. that it is acceptable to certify a learner who has not acquired core knowledge and/or has never developed core skills deemed essential in that learner’s area(s) of emphasis.

Only then will we (re)discover what we once knew and practiced:

  1. that learning never stops, so we must recognize the temporary nature of knowledge and skills,
  2. that the learner is ready when the learner is ready, and
  3. that only when mastery of knowledge and skills is achieved is the learner (and learning) certified.

Equally important, we must apply these principles by equipping learners with the knowledge and skills they will actually need. Consider this: we hear a mantra that future trajectories for people in the work force will be nonlinear and demand great cognitive, emotional, technical and other forms of flexibility and entrepreneurial skill. Without a curriculum that inculcates such flexibility and entrepreneurship, we are essentially ill equipping (at best) or dooming (at worst) the learners who have come to our institutions for that vaunted “education.” Whether it is the performing arts (e.g., How well are we preparing future musicians for a world of self-promotion as well as excellent playing?) or accounting (e.g., How well are we preparing future accountants to stay one step ahead of AI?), unless we shift to include such flexibility along with critical thinking, computation, data analytics, communication and so forth, we will fail.

Before we chase this rabbit, though, let’s be reflective. Let’s admit it is high time higher education moved on from wondering about the conditions under which learning occurs best -- we have a good handle on that, actually -- and the internecine warfare about which courses count toward the major and which to a random walk model of general education. Let’s move to the much more important matters of achieving consensus on, and the authentic assessment of, core knowledge and skills in every area and providing certification of that assessment to the learner for inclusion in the learner’s eportfolio. Let’s ensure that every learner is prepared to be flexible and entrepreneurial, and explicitly adopt a seamless lifelong learning approach to all higher education.

So committed, we take these steps in full collaboration with the public and private sectors that hire and benefit from the learners we educate. How might this collaboration proceed? I believe the following steps would at least set the stage.

Listen contemplatively and completely. For years, public and private organizations and higher education institutions have been talking past each other chasing rabbits -- adding new majors or concentrations in certain fields and eliminating others, creating “partnerships” with businesses, and so forth, without really taking the time to deeply understand what the real issues are.

Insist on mutual clarity, honesty and hard work. Higher education must complete the work of creating authentic assessments for all the knowledge and skills that it claims are vitally important: critical thinking, data analysis, mathematical reasoning, writing and speaking clarity, and so forth. Likewise, public and private organizations must now be crystal clear on the skills needed by college graduates for success and how those skills map to specific positions over time at all levels. (The latter point would lead naturally to extensions of skills mapping, an already common approach used in those sectors but that is not yet well developed at advanced levels.)

Embed flexibility and entrepreneurship across the curriculum. Creating specialized programs relating to flexibility and entrepreneurship is the worst rabbit of all. Unless such knowledge and skills are embedded all across the curriculum, students and society will be ill served.

Require the collaboration throughout adulthood. Once we have clear and consensus-based agreement on the mapping of knowledge and skills, higher education can work fully collaboratively with the public and private sectors to co-create a lifelong education system that offers learners the opportunity to refresh and advance themselves whenever and wherever needed.

The elements of this approach are not new. What is novel is the goal of creating a truly lifelong learning model that is continuous in conceptualization but discontinuous in practice, and that is not based on arbitrary chunks of time-based learning (in either a direct or a derived sense). Rather, learners attend a higher education institution to gain a certain amount of knowledge and skills, not just for a job but for broader civic engagement as well, with the amount determined through the mutual process described earlier, and they can either pause then or continue. The key point is that wherever and whenever the learner pauses, it is understood that the pausing is temporary.

How does this change the view and role of higher education? First, it eliminates the trope of the so-called skills gap as, by definition, the authentic assessment of knowledge and skills that have been co-developed by a diverse group of experts to eliminate that gap takes care of it, as long as both higher education and the public and private sectors have been honest in their work. Moreover, the acquisition of knowledge and skills essential to the civic good are also clearly articulated and assessed.

Second, the model moves away from the confines (and hegemony) of credits and majors, and eliminates the turf-protecting academic arguments regarding the balance between general education and specialized courses. Importantly, majors as we understand them would phase out in favor of foundational approaches that emphasize cognitive and career flexibility and entrepreneurship -- points that get a great deal of conversation but for which students now get almost no preparation. As both the public and private sectors continue their move away from hiring learners in traditional majors like accounting or business to hiring learners with broader, flexible skills and knowledge, a mapping approach will provide better understanding of what it takes to be successful at work and in society.

There is no doubt that change of this sort is both radical and essential. The longer higher education continues to chase the rabbits, however, the more irrelevant it will become, and the harder it will be to respond not only to the Caterpillar’s but also society’s existential question.

John C. Cavanaugh is president and CEO of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

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Hiram College redesign would nix majors in math, philosophy, economics; add interdisciplinary arts and criminal justice programs

Leaders at Ohio’s Hiram College are proposing a sweeping redesign of the liberal arts college, with plans to discontinue several bedrock majors including mathematics, philosophy, economics, art history, music and religious studies.

A presidential spouse muses about the current environment for higher education (opinion)

The expanse of prairie stretching beyond our breakfast room window turned out to be an unexpected bonus. A decade ago, when my wife and I bought our house in the Chicago suburbs, curb appeal, room layout and proximity to the university were its major attractions. Sure, the calm, subdued beauty of nature struck me, essentially a city guy, as a pleasant novelty. But I regarded it offhandedly as “nice.” I had no idea how that superficial reaction would change.

My wife, Elaine, president of Governors State University, identifies the location of her campus as “where the prairie meets the city,” which aptly describes the setting of our home, too. At first, I occasionally surveyed the casual opulence spread before me with fleeting appreciation. I did enjoy glimpses of color change accompanying spring rebirth and autumnal retreat. I particularly liked being surprised by the infrequent appearance of a few deer, white tails flicking and heads jerking at any suggestion of danger. Rarely, I’d even spot a coyote slinking through tall grass, a reminder of sorts that generally benign nature contains elements that coexist uneasily. That realization foreshadowed what I came to feel about the culture now enveloping us.

For many, the past year has tested our sense of national direction as well as our expectations for responsible political conduct. Its initial surrealism has largely ceased to shock. The unthinkable has lost its prefix as the plummet from rationality continues.

At first, I kept my growing disaffection to myself, considering it perhaps an overreaction. I’m not, after all, someone generally uncritical about the machinations of government. Soon, however, I found my morose responses to a new normal replicated among many friends and colleagues. Adapting to this incomprehensible new world has required most of us to devise strategies that ease dismay and agitation, at least to some extent.

Mine often involves truly seeing what at first I only looked at: the prairie. Because each part generally contributes to an organized whole, it provides an antidote to encroaching disarray. Almost daily, finishing my coffee before driving to the campus with Elaine, I concentrate on elements like islands of wildflowers, to which category I’ve promoted that maligned “weed,” the dandelion. What I’ve seen helps sustain me when parts of the day scrape against the whole.

I’m glad I have so many visual inspirations, because contributors to my dis-ease exist both nationally and in Illinois. When national politics become temporarily unthinkable, follies of my state fill the angst void, particularly its lamentable policy toward public higher education. Recently, our public institutions endured more than two years without a budget. Somehow, the relationship between funding allocations and achieved value seemed not to occur to many policy makers, who were concerned primarily with enhancing reputations as tightfisted “guardians” of state revenue.

That posturing has ended, at least temporarily. Now we deal with various impacts of their “economies.” At many Illinois public universities, enrollment has dropped as prospective students opt for universities in fiscally responsible states. Some faculty members and key administrators, weary of repetitive financial uncertainties, have sought stability elsewhere. Not to be minimized, deferred maintenance has been deferred and deferred.

Perhaps worst of all, many low-income students have been discouraged entirely from seeking higher education. For the last three years, according to the National Educational Clearing House, 34 percent of prospective freshmen who met qualifications for admission to Governors State University enrolled nowhere -- not out of state, not at private institutions, not at community colleges -- nowhere. The state budget impasse and threats preceding it closed on-ramps to the middle class for those students. Long-term consequences of squandering this potential can’t be calculated.

As a veteran educator myself, I have always believed that the health of the eye does, indeed, require a horizon. Currently, that horizon grows more distant. To endure the agita accompanying this dour situation, I welcome new sources of comfort and perspective renewal.

One recent morning, taking my last look at the prairie, I noticed something I hadn’t observed before. Fastened to a reed that swayed violently in a strong morning wind was a small black-and-yellow bird. It clung tenaciously to its perch despite being buffeted in various directions. Captivated by the minidrama, I delayed leaving. After a minute or so, when gusts abated, the little creature flew off, leaving me to reflect on what I’d just seen.

Knowing virtually nothing about ornithology, I chose to mythologize the episode. I admired what I saw as strength, courage, resilience, balance and, yes, sheer stubbornness in a struggle against adversity. Some deep impulse, I projected, powered the bird to hang on until it could choose the next moment of its life rather than have it imposed by an outside force. Fantasy? So what! Why waste an insight whose time has arrived?

In our political climate, living constructively requires determination not to capitulate to multiple adversities. Surrendering to dejection, and, therefore, retreating morosely to inactivity cedes society to various idiocracies vying to seize control. Resistance to this aggressive takeover doesn’t require melodrama. It can be mustered effectively in the too-often neglected power of voting, which should be exercised without fail nationally, statewide and locally. And that includes in primaries. Numbers of votes, not irrefutable logic and thoughtful vision, command attention from some career-focused lawmakers.

And in social venues, we must rationally but with restraint (a difficult but attainable mix) counter the persistent onslaught of propaganda posing as ideas. Maybe we can help resuscitate the meaning of “news” and help demolish the science-fiction concept of “alternative facts.”

Working to correct our course will be arduous. Recovery from the blindsiding of common sense demands the determination of that bird I chose to imagine willfully resisting the winds. In our particular moment, regular outages of reason threaten an illuminated future. Still, we must actively resolve that good sense, for the most part, will ultimately be restored.

And “nowhere” cannot be accepted as an educational option. With the restoration of a regular state budget, applications for Governors State University’s next fall freshman class have increased by 15 percent. Like my avian model, we must, in all ways imaginable, actively help shape our destinies and make sure that universities remain places of hope.

Mort Maimon is a retired educator, a writer and a dedicated campus volunteer. His wife, Elaine P. Maimon, is president of Governors State University.

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Small colleges in financial distress should consider mergers sooner than later (opinion)

Higher Education Mergers

The recent announcement by Mount Ida College that it would be closing its doors and selling its Newton, Mass., campus to the University of Massachusetts was met with harsh criticism -- not only from Mount Ida’s students, faculty and staff members but also from the University of Massachusetts community, other institutions of higher education, politicians and the general public.

While Mount Ida’s approach to a tough decision was clearly less than ideal, their problems are not distinct, nor are they easily solvable. Given the realities for many small colleges today, and the decisions others will likely have to make in the coming months and years, it’s important to realize the myriad factors that need to be considered to avoid the kind of backlash Mount Ida is facing.

Graphic for Inside Higher Ed Events, part of the 2018 Leadership Series: "Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies." Presenting sponsor Strada Education Network. April 19, Washington, DC. Register now.A 2016 report from Parthenon-EY predicts that nearly 800 private institutions with 1,000 or fewer enrolled students will close or merge in the next 10 to 15 years. The 18- to 22-year-old college-going population in the United States is declining, and New England is one of the first regions that will experience this demographic trend -- one not expected to change until 2033. College presidents and boards should consider these facts a call to action. The earlier an institution in financial jeopardy takes the necessary steps to facilitate a smooth transition, either through a merger or a closing, the better the outcome for its students, faculty and staff members. (Disclosure: Parthenon-EY is a sponsor of Inside Higher Ed’s upcoming event “Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies.”)

Last fall, working with Parthenon-EY and facing many of the same realities as Mount Ida and others, we made the very difficult decision to merge Wheelock College with Boston University. While financial and enrollment trends at our institution were declining, they were not yet at crisis level. Recognizing the inevitabilities earlier, though not easy, did provide us time and resources to find the best possible outcomes for our students. It also gave us the opportunity to ensure teaching positions for many of our faculty members, and it provided staff members whose jobs duplicated roles already occupied at BU many months of time and career resources to find new jobs elsewhere.

Still, it has been a difficult year for the Wheelock community. We knew that leading such a significant change would not be easy, but we also recognized that we needed to muster the courage and humility to steward our students, faculty and staff, and, ultimately, Wheelock’s mission through this transition. We have had the privilege of working with a team of talented faculty and staff members to build the new Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at BU while simultaneously developing transition plans for our community. While the necessary layoffs and ultimate transition have been extremely challenging for many of us, the work we’ve done to build a new college has been creative and generative, and it gives us hope for the future of Wheelock’s legacy.

With guidance from our board, we made the decision that we felt would best serve our community and preserve the important historical mission of our institution. We searched nationally for an institutional partner that demonstrated that it valued that mission, and we found such a partner in BU. With our partnership, we are keeping Lucy Wheelock’s name and our campus alive for future students and our community. BU has also committed to provide financial support to our students, keeping their tuition and fees at Wheelock levels throughout the transition period.

In addition, we have the privilege of working with deeply committed faculty, staff, alumni and community partners from the two institutions to create a new college of education and human development. The new college’s goal is to have a greater impact on the lives of the children and families in Boston and beyond than the BU School of Education or Wheelock College have had separately. Our hope is that in working collaboratively with Boston Public Schools, our community partners and the City of Boston, we will continue to play our part in helping to identify solutions to the education and human development challenges we now face in Massachusetts and beyond.

What did we learn in the process of merging? If you lead a vulnerable institution, search for an institutional partner when you still have enterprise value and bargaining power. Formalize your decision when you have the time and the financial assets to plan for a successful closure, one that allows for a supportive teach-out for your students and severance packages for your staff and faculty members.

Higher education leaders should make their difficult choices when those choices remain theirs to make and when they can find a partner that shares their institutional values. Hard decisions are easier to make when you know you are doing the right thing for students and preserving the long-term legacy of a beloved institution.

David Chard is president and Mary Churchill is vice president for academic affairs at Wheelock College. Both Chard and Churchill are featured speakers at Inside Higher Ed’s event “Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies,” Thursday, April 19, in Washington.

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Why more colleges should acknowledge the need to merge (opinion)

Many institutions of higher education should be considering a merger, as they are facing an existential crisis. They can merge, close or suffer unremitting deterioration. To admit that the situation is what it is does not assign blame, as no individual at any college or university can control the market forces bearing down on many campuses. 

Whether or not a college can continue to function as it is proud to have done for generations is among the most difficult discussions to begin, much less literally bring to closure. Opening up such a conversation compels campus leaders to acknowledge that the academic enterprise, even if traditionally nonprofit, happens to be a business as well, and that they must develop strategies to deal with the undeniable reality of fewer students, greater costs and increased competitiveness. Payroll must be met, bills must be paid, and the same rules must apply to higher education as they do to other sectors of the economy. Colleges are like newspapers, brick-and-mortar retail stores or manufacturers of internal combustion engines. The disruption that defines our era threatens us all. 

Graphic for Inside Higher Ed Events, part of the 2018 Leadership Series: "Joining Forces: Merger and Collaboration Strategies." Presenting sponsor Strada Education Network. April 19, Washington, DC. Register now.

Faculty members are understandably concerned primarily with the academic quality of the programs that their institutions offer and tend to avoid tough decisions about financial concerns. But today, they must become involved in fiscal matters. Progressive professors understand the argument that it is the students who pay their salaries. They will regret it if they allow others, professionals with different backgrounds and corporate values, to make profound decisions about the entity within which they expect to continue teaching and researching. It would be wrong for a chief academic officer to have less influence than a chief financial officer. But scholars will be subordinate to accountants if they do not demonstrate an interest in reading -- and a corresponding capability to read -- financial statements.

Other stakeholders have their own agendas that keep them from facing the facts. While board members have a fiduciary duty and are ultimately responsible for the sustainability of the operation, they often may be reluctant to eliminate their own roles.  And one of the most disheartening impediments to broaching the subject of merger is alumni pride, as those who previously attended refuse to accept the institution is no longer what it once was.

The temptation for all who are concerned is to believe the superior leader, capable of more effective fund-raising, will take care of everything. Yet the problems are structural. For many colleges, even a 10-fold improvement in annual donations will not make up for a downward trend in tuition revenue. It’s impolite to note, but an objective analysis of some of the “transformative” gifts that institutions announce with fanfare suggests those donations may be turned into a new building, new curricula or tangible benefits for just a handful of selected professors and students. They cannot in the abstract, and they do not in reality, make a meaningful difference in the cost of attendance for the average student.

The math is not a mystery. Law schools, liberal arts colleges that are not among the most prestigious and stand-alone institutions specializing in a limited range of fields are the most vulnerable -- but they are not alone. Among law schools, for example, Whittier Law School is closing, and Valparaiso University School of Law hopes to avoid the same result. The liberal arts institution Sweet Briar College has averted its demise, but only so far. Westminster Choir College, historic and highly regarded but also restricted thematically, has been put up for sale by its parent institution.

A study of the balance sheets of almost all higher education institutions reveals they are tuition dependent even if they pretend to be a peer of Harvard University or Stanford University. The bulk of their revenue comes from what they collect from each enrolled student, reduced by the discount rate. So if college leaders can predict that the number of students will most likely decline, and tuition has reached a natural ceiling, the temptation is for a short-term fix of offering “scholarships” that are unfunded -- rebates or transfers from one student to another based on credentials or other characteristics. But without sizable reserves, that strategy is untenable for anything longer than a brief period. Even with a modest endowment, one can calculate how long until the income is insufficient and the corpus must be invaded.

The predicament of higher education is not new. The conventional responses, however, are no longer as readily available. You can boost tuition revenue by attracting multitudes more or charging them more, but it is not reasonable to believe, given demographic trends and the political vicissitudes affecting international applicants, that the pool of qualified students will grow much. Nor is it feasible to ratchet tuition upward indefinitely, at rates exceeding inflation or any other measure, without giving much of it back via the discount rate. In the worst cases, colleges end up bringing in a class that is smaller and not as highly credentialed and that pays in the aggregate an amount below the preceding year, thanks to “scholarships” that had to be awarded.

A consensus among key campus constituencies that costs ought to be brought under control is insufficient. People who wish for cuts to expenses assume that they themselves are not facing the risk of layoffs. The trouble is that the bulk of the expenses at colleges and universities, especially those that are well run and not spending excessively in capital projects, are for what makes them renowned and distinctive: their human resources -- in particular, faculty members. Ironically, the principles of shared governance often ensure that the administrators who possess the resolve to reform lack the political support to do so and vice versa. 

Ratcheting up pressure, as the economist Adolph Wagner observed a century ago, when societies become more affluent, they expect their governments to offer more services. Wagner’s thesis was that the accumulation of wealth usually tends toward more, not less, taxation as people demand better and better. Higher education exemplifies Wagner’s law. It is labor intensive -- and not only in the actual teaching but also in the support services it offers. “High touch” costs more than high tech, without even taking into account extravagances such as climbing walls and lazy rivers. Unlike a series of gadgets, higher education cannot introduce a brand-new set of features each year for the same price. A seminar is not an iPhone, and it cannot be treated as if it were.

Here are two examples of additional functions imposed on higher education in recent years that exacerbate the dilemma. Both are laudable, and to say that they cost money is not to argue against the dollars being spent. It is only to point out the obvious fact that someone must pay for such mandates -- which generally means the students. (Public support for public higher education is crucial, and its loss is another subject to be taken up.)

First, colleges have to be more “transparent” and demonstrate that they are adding value. For example, government entities increasingly demand they compile, publish even audit statistics on employment of graduates and student learning outcomes. That is good, but data cost money. Staff must be assigned to do the job of finding the facts and tracking down people, some of whom do not wish to reveal their status.

Second, institutions today have a moral imperative to address rampant sexual assault and harassment, providing prevention, investigation and remediation. Title IX has been expanded (though it may contract again). That also is positive change, but it also isn’t gratis. Experts who know what they are doing are required for this type of work. People already on the campus must be trained or new people with the appropriate experience must be hired.

Institutions that are not comprehensive research universities intrinsically lack economies of scale to copy comprehensive research ones. If everyone must submit employment statistics to an oversight agency and put them on the web, the institution with 1,000 students has much more of a burden, on a per-capita basis, than the one with 10,000 students. The costs for virtually everything that has to be done will be greater for the former compared to the latter, once divided up and passed on to the students.

Hundreds of decent liberal arts colleges have inadequate endowments for their plans. They cannot keep up fiscally. They cannot do what Williams College or Amherst College can do. They also do not want to do what their for-profit counterparts are willing to do. What's worse, the institution that is fine but not equal to the elite is locked into a rankings race with those at the top of the list. They are held to the same metrics, evaluated as if only skill in the game would put them ahead.

The task for many of them is not to choose among conventional tactics. If they do not contemplate becoming something altogether different, their alternative will be to cease to be. There should be no shame in proposing merger. It may inspire other creative options. The choice is not black-and-white, because there are intermediate arrangements or affiliations, such as the Claremont McKenna consortium.

The condition of many colleges and universities is not what they would like the world to believe. To confront the facts and take action is wiser than to be nostalgic about the bygone era when the gentleman’s C was as sufficient for higher education institutions as it was for their students.

Frank H. Wu is a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Hastings, a stand-alone institution affiliated with the University of California system, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean. He was widely credited for initiating the trend of reducing law school enrollment.

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