Eliminating Undergraduates

Facing budget shortfalls and enrollment declines, Marygrove College in Detroit makes an uncommon decision.

August 10, 2017
 
Marygrove College

Marygrove College in Detroit joined the list Wednesday of small private colleges making cuts because of financial difficulties, announcing it will follow the unusual strategy of shutting down its undergraduate programs in the middle of the upcoming academic year.

The small Roman Catholic liberal arts college in northwest Detroit will only offer master's degree programs starting in January 2018. The change will mean job losses for many of the institution's 44 full-time faculty members, four part-time faculty members and roughly 70 staff members. It will also mean finding a new home for hundreds of undergraduate students.

But Marygrove's leaders saw little other choice after years of stubborn deficits, high debt and a small endowment that is down to about $500,000. The college made efforts to increase enrollment but was unable to do so, according to Elizabeth Burns, its president.

“People want us to keep Marygrove undergrad open, and they say, ‘Just tell everybody you need money,’” Burns said. “I need money, but I also need students. We need volume, and we need a lot of students in class. It's hard to have a robust discussion when you only have five students or six students, or even 10 in the class.”

Marygrove's enrollment has been plunging in recent years. It reported a combined 1,850 graduate and undergraduate students in 2013 -- a peak. Last fall, the college enrolled just 491 undergraduates and 475 graduate students.

At the same time, budget deficits mounted. The college went into the 2014-15 year thinking it could balance its budget but was unable to do so, Burns said. The college cut its expense budget from roughly $25 million several years ago to $20 million last year. Nonetheless, deficits persisted, and it closed the 2017 fiscal year this summer with a deficit of nearly $4 million.

“We survived through the kindness of the sisters who are our sponsoring order and through philanthropy,” Burns said. “That really bought us the time we needed to think.”

The college is sponsored by the congregation of Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

This summer the college received a consultant's report saying it was not sustainable in its current form. Not only was the university having trouble attracting students, but many students were transferring after they arrived. The board voted Tuesday to end undergraduate enrollment. A day later, Marygrove announced its plan.

“The Board of Trustees voted to continue with strong graduate studies and professional development because grad studies are sustainable and in demand,” said Kay Benesh, Board of Trustees chair, in a statement. “It was also critical for Marygrove to remain the mainstay of this northwest Detroit community and an active partner with our neighbors in growing this community.”

The college is expected to continue to offer seven graduate and professional development programs, many in education. About 35 undergraduate programs will be dropped.

Marygrove plans to use the upcoming fall semester to help students find new colleges. Assisting them in the transfer process was one of the reasons leaders wanted to open to undergraduates this fall. The college has lined up academic advisers and financial aid counselors to craft individual plans.

But many of the institution's plans for the future are still unsettled. It will be left with a 53-acre campus. It doesn't plan to sell any of the land, although leases are possible, Burns said. Administrators aren't sure how many students they should expect to lose after Wednesday's announcement.

Burns acknowledged the college's course of action is “unique” but said it can be exciting if viewed as a way forward opening new possibilities. Marygrove has undergone substantial change before. The college was founded in Monroe, south of Detroit, and moved to the city 90 years ago. It became coed in 1971. It “archived” a master's in English program last year, Burns said.

Although many colleges and universities have started new graduate programs, the list of institutions that have decided to cut undergraduate operations within recent memory is short. Wheelock College in Boston was said to be considering eliminating its undergraduate programs earlier this summer. A report said it had put recruiting of undergraduates for 2019 on hold. However, those reports about undergraduate changes were not accurate, and the college does plan to recruit a class for 2019 on its normal timeline, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Wheelock is in a planning process to try to find a sustainable future. It is selling two properties -- its president's house and a small residence hall that is one of six on campus.

Other colleges making substantial changes in the last year for financial reasons include Holy Cross College in Indiana, which agreed in May to sell 75 acres of its land to the University of Notre Dame in order to improve its financial situation. Aquinas College in Tennessee in March announced plans to cut degrees, eliminate residential housing and cut student life activities in a pivot back toward its origins as a normal school. St. Joseph's College in Indiana set off a firestorm in February when it said it would be suspending operations on its home campus and only running a bachelor of science in nursing program held off-campus. Iowa Wesleyan College put in place deep cuts, including to programs, several years ago.

None of those provides a blueprint for the pivot Marygrove is about to attempt. But the college's need to change in the face of enrollment challenges was clear to some.

“It's very uncommon,” said Susan Resneck Pierce, former president of the University of Puget Sound and president of SRP Consulting. “On the other hand, did they realistically have a choice?”

Marygrove leaders didn't see many ways to raise more money. The college's benefactors had already been extremely generous, according to Burns. Its student body was not wealthy -- 65 percent of undergraduates received federal Pell grants in 2015-16, a proxy for students from low-income backgrounds.

At the same time, however, Marygrove students come from underserved populations. Its undergraduate student body was 63 percent black last fall. Nearly all students, 95 percent, came from in state, and it was known to draw heavily from Detroit and its surrounding area.

Some responses on social media were unhappy. One Twitter user wrote, “I don't understand how you can close a college midsemester … Let us finish our year at least.” Another wrote about being happy to have seen “the writing on the wall” before leaving.

But others were regretful. Another Twitter user wrote she was “saddened” to hear of the changes and that she was praying for the college. One called the news “unfortunate” and said he was praying for future success.

“We had to make a hard decision,” Burns said. “And the hard decision was what educators need in the city of Detroit, and what some businesspeople need in the city of Detroit, are certificate programs and professional development programs.”

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