Stepping Back From Graduate Programs

As many liberal arts colleges are urged to add graduate programs, St. Lawrence pulls back.

August 15, 2018
 
SLU Photo/Tara Freeman

Many a liberal arts institution has attempted to diversify revenue streams and student pools by opening graduate programs, but at least one in New York State moved in the opposite direction this summer.

St. Lawrence University, a private institution located about 18 miles from the Canadian border in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, said this summer that it has suspended admissions for graduate certification programs in mental health counseling, school counseling, general studies and education leadership. University leaders say no final decision has been made on the programs’ future, but some faculty leaders seem resigned to the idea that the programs will be shuttered.

University leaders said the decision not to accept new students was made after a spring faculty committee review. They also acknowledged the programs in question were small and costly to run on a per-student basis.

More broadly, the decision comes as universities large and small grapple with finding ways to prepare for an uncertain future while holding on to their core identities. The tensions have played out in different forms at the undergraduate level, like debates over adding adult degree-completion programs, and at the graduate level, as even wealthy universities shuffle offerings like executive M.B.A. programs.

The changes come as St. Lawrence is “seeking ways to continue to serve our local schools and communities while focusing on our primary mission of excellence in undergraduate education,” according to a spokesman. The university is not making changes to its largest graduate program, a noncertification program in education leadership that typically enrolls about 40 to 50 students.

Still, faculty members who coordinated the certification programs that are not accepting new students say those programs served an important role in a part of the state where students have few other options. Some faculty members would have liked to have heard more from administrators about the decision.

Rumors of changes have been circulating for years, said Peter Ladd, coordinator of the mental health counseling program and an associate professor.

“Over the last four or five years, those types of things floated around,” Ladd said. “There was no real definitive statement made about getting ready for this. And it happened very quickly.”

The decision to suspend admissions came after St. Lawrence’s academic affairs committee studied which programs were costing more money than they were generating, the Watertown Daily Times reported in July. The decision will not affect tenured or tenure-track faculty positions, it reported, citing an email from Karl Schonberg, who is vice president of the university and dean of academic affairs.

Schonberg’s email also briefly outlines the process leading up to the decision.

“Just before commencement the university’s Academic Affairs Committee completed a report based on a semester-long review of our programs in education, recommending consideration of phasing out some tracks within the department,” says the email, which St. Lawrence shared with Inside Higher Ed. “In order to allow full consideration of those recommendations, admissions have been suspended for the coming academic year to the graduate certification programs in mental health and school counseling, general studies, and education leadership for students who have not begun coursework in those programs.”

Schonberg was not available for an interview, but he answered emailed questions through a university spokesman. Students who are still enrolled in the certification programs have been advised to plan on completing course work by August of 2019 “to anticipate any possible changes to their programs,” but no student will be required to complete degrees by the end of the 2019 academic year, he said.

“Enrollment in these programs was small and had declined over recent years,” Schonberg wrote. “In May 2018, we had only two master’s in school counseling graduates, two with certificate of advanced studies (CAS) in school counseling, and one graduate in teaching certification.”

But Ladd, the coordinator of the mental health counseling program, said demand had been strong in recent years.

“We had expanded it quite a bit because of the need for mental health counselors, and so it was a pretty robust program,” he said. “It’s not like it’s a dying industry, mental health.”

Students came from about a 100-mile radius, Ladd said. They came from working in human service fields or directly from their undergraduate education. The program enrolled between 20 and 25 students at a time and took two years full-time to complete.

A review of St. Lawrence’s recent enrollment data shows that the university’s graduate programs are just a small slice of its overall operations -- and have remained that way over the years. In 2011-12, its graduate head count totaled 96. Graduate head count rose to 102 in 2014-15 before dropping back down to 87 in 2016-17.

In contrast, the university’s undergraduate head count during that period ranged between a low of 2,361 in 2011-12 and a high of 2,435 in 2015-16.

Financially, St. Lawrence is in a stronger position than many of its peers, even though it is not among the country’s handful of wealthiest institutions. The university’s endowment totaled $296 million in 2017. That translates into more than $126,000 per student, placing St. Lawrence within the top quarter of colleges and universities ranked in the United States and Canada in the latest annual endowment study from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

The university also posted consistent surpluses in recent years, growing net assets from $314.3 million at the beginning of 2014 to $402.4 million at the end of 2017.

Even against that backdrop, some experts think it would be wise for an institution like St. Lawrence to prepare for an uncertain future. Population projections show a declining number of traditional college-aged students in New York State, and demographics generally do not favor institutions in cold climates, like a part of upstate New York known as the North Country.

“The circumstances facing a rural college or university in terms of graduate programs is very different from what a college in the Colleges of the Fenway might have,” said Brian C. Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College who has written about higher ed operations in a changing climate and is now a consultant based in Boston.

Sometimes colleges and universities have to evaluate which programs can pay for themselves or which programs are likely to grow. They also have to consider whether certain programs don’t fit with their public face.

“There has to be an identifiable brand,” Mitchell said. “Mission matters.”

While St. Lawrence may have decided to focus on undergraduate education, individuals in its programs are still going to have to deal with the fallout. Some students who had been planning to graduate from certification programs after attending part-time over multiple years are having to change plans, said Kyle Blanchfield, a visiting assistant professor of education who is program coordinator for educational leadership.

“The problem we’re running into is the finances,” she said. “People were asked to come up with money they were expecting to wait three years to get ahold of. Now they’re told they need to finish, to graduate, in a year.”

The leadership certification program enrolls public school teachers who are looking to move into administration, Blanchfield said. They have had to teach for a number of years before they could enroll, and many are approaching middle age.

“They’re mostly local people from the North Country,” Blanchfield said. “There are a few that travel and relocate, but usually they have jobs on campus or something that supports that, so they get some tuition help.”

Blanchfield described the programs that have stopped enrolling students as long-standing and successful. Applicants had to be turned away. Some alumni have pushed back against the idea of closing them, Blanchfield said.

St. Lawrence suspended applications well before they were due in order to give prospective students as much time as possible to plan, according to Schonberg, the dean.

Faculty members still wish they could have heard more about the programs’ fate, and at an earlier date.

“It’s a private place and they have a right to do whatever they want to do,” said Ladd, coordinator of the mental health counseling program. “I told them that -- it’s your place. It’s not my program. It would be nice to know why, but that seems to be a very elusive answer.”

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