Advance Closing Notice

Newbury College announces early that it is closing, avoiding mistakes other colleges have made.

December 17, 2018
 
Newbury College

Newbury College had been through many changes and adaptations in its 56 years.

The small private college was founded in 1962 in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston as the Newbury School of Business. It moved multiple times, settling in Brookline, outside the city, in 1982. It became Newbury Junior College in 1971, changed its name to Newbury College in 1985, and became a baccalaureate college in 1994.

These days, Newbury branded itself to try to appeal to current students -- as a “liberal arts college providing career-oriented experiential education.”

But on Friday Newbury joined a steady drip of small private liberal arts institutions succumbing to financial pressures and falling enrollment. It announced it will close at the end of the spring 2019 semester.

Administrators and trustees at Newbury are still exploring the possibility of a partnership to keep the doors open. Nonetheless, they want prospective students, current students, faculty members and staff members to have time to plan for their futures, said the college’s president, Joseph Chillo, in a statement.

“Accordingly, we are providing this notice, before we are legally required to do so, because it is the right thing to do,” Chillo said. “Our people, the dignity of our mission, and the legacy of the institution are our most important concerns of today.”

By announcing in December that it would close months later, Newbury stood out. The timing of its announcement quickly drew support from state regulators.

Closing a college is never an easy decision, but it can be the right one for students, said Jillian Fennimore, a spokeswoman for Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey, in a statement.

“The Attorney General’s Office expresses its appreciation to Newbury College’s board and senior leadership for making this difficult choice in an orderly way that helps maximize opportunities for students,” she said.

The state’s commissioner of higher education, Carlos Santiago, said in his own statement that his office was working with Newbury to put a closing plan in place that will help students explore their options. He anticipates Newbury will lay out transfer programs soon so that students and families can make plans well before the end of the academic year.

"It is a sad occasion when a college announces plans to close its doors,” Santiago said. “In this instance, I am pleased to see that campus leaders are working proactively and collaboratively with members of my staff to ensure an orderly closure process, which will benefit all members of the college community.”

Observers outside the state took note of the timing as well.

“If an institution really knows that it’s not financially viable, it is ethical to give students, faculty and staff that information as soon as possible so they can make the best choices available,” said Susan Resneck Pierce, a former college president who is now a college consultant and occasional columnist for Inside Higher Ed.

Those reactions are markedly different from the outcry that erupted in April when another Boston-area institution, Mount Ida College, announced that it would be closing at the end of the semester. Mount Ida’s announcement came after last-ditch merger efforts fell apart.

In the aftermath of Mount Ida’s announcement, faculty members complained that they had been blindsided and were left seeking jobs too late in the academic hiring cycle. Lawmakers attacked Mount Ida leaders’ decision making, and state officials started discussing possible regulatory changes. Students complained they were left with no clear teach-out plans for their programs and even went on to launch a lawsuit against the college and some of its former leaders.

After that outcry, it is perhaps no surprise that Newbury made its intentions clear at an earlier time.

The decision to close still isn't always easy, of course -- or widely accepted. The leaders of Sweet Briar College in rural Virginia decided to shut down operations in 2015, even though it had a sizable endowment, because they thought trends were not in the college's favor and did not see a path to keeping it viable over time. But alumnae reacted with outrage and soon won a deal to keep the college open under new management.

It had become clear that Newbury was struggling. Its audit for the year ending in June 2017 noted that the college's net assets had dropped by roughly $2.4 million, it ran a working capital deficit of about $825,000 and it recorded negative cash flow from operations of $442,000. In response, Newbury was marketing real estate with an estimated value of $2.8 million and discussing the terms of its line of credit with its lender.

"Management acknowledges that uncertainty remains over the ability to sustain the long-term financial stability of the College, however, they believe the above steps are viable and achievable and will enable the College to meet its funding requirements and obligations as they become due in the ordinary course of business, for a period of twelve months following the date these financial statements are available to be issued," the audit said. "For the long-term, management is considering all alternatives including revamping its curriculum and program offerings to increase enrollment and decrease expenses."

Then the college was placed on probation by its accreditor earlier this year because of concerns about its finances. At the time, the college’s leaders said they were exploring real estate transactions and strategic partnerships to try to bolster its position.

Options the college pursued were said to include a merger with another institution, according to sources familiar with the Boston higher ed market. On Friday, Newbury’s president said in his statement that the decision to close came only after a “tireless pursuit” of multiple options to remain open. Those options included affiliations.

Newbury declined to make officials available for interview Friday. But a review of publicly available data shows the college had been losing enrollment and fighting to bring in money for years.

The college lost roughly half of its enrollment between 2006 and 2017, according to federal data. In 2006, its head count totaled 1,282, but it fell all the way to 620 in 2017. Newbury reported 625 enrolled students Friday.

Adult students declined even more rapidly. In 2006, Newbury enrolled 326 students aged 25 to 64, federal data show. In 2017, it enrolled just 68. For colleges in regions like New England, where the population of traditional college-age students is shrinking, adult enrollments can be crucial.

Newbury posted an annual deficit twice in the three years from 2015 to 2017, according to its most recently available federal tax documents. It lost almost $2.8 million in 2017.

Almost 92 percent of Newbury students received financial aid, with the average institutional award totaling $18,217. Tuition for the 2018-19 academic year stickered at $33,940, meaning the college was offering deep discounts to the students who enrolled.

Meanwhile, the college posted other metrics that might have made prospective students look twice. Its six-year graduation rate was just 34 percent, it reported.

Whether such statistics show a college is serving its students is subject to debate and dependent on context. But the data clearly indicate an institution struggling to enroll students who are willing or able to pay.

Newbury is far from the only small college or university to publicly face closure in recent weeks. Bennett College, a private historically black women’s college in North Carolina, is appealing a decision announced this week by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges to yank its accreditation over financial issues. Iowa Wesleyan University said in November it would be seeking new funding in order to keep its doors open.

Back in New England, the College of St. Joseph in Vermont must improve its financial situation by the beginning of April or lose its accreditation. This spring, St. Joseph said it might lack the money to stay open, then decided it would continue operations. But the college and its students are back on the ropes, as loss of accreditation would be a serious blow -- accreditation is required for a college’s students to be able to access federal financial aid, which is also a key source of funding for colleges and universities.

Newbury College’s closure is likely to resonate in the Boston area both because of its contrast with Mount Ida and because the institution had striking similarities to Mount Ida. The two institutions’ campuses are just five miles apart. They likely competed for some of the same students, observers say.

Still, some aren’t ready to say further consolidation in the Boston area or in New England is inevitable.

“The individual institutions that have been impacted and are being impacted each had very unique characteristics and challenges,” said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts.

Some colleges in the market facing a bleak financial future have also tried to merge, Doherty acknowledged. Wheelock College did so last year when it agreed to merge into Boston University.

After each merger or closure, other institutions have tried to learn, Doherty said.

“I don’t feel as if it’s a foregone conclusion we’re going to be seeing a string of these,” he said. “I think schools have tried to take away many lessons learned and have tried to adapt and take a look at where their recruiting efforts are focused and where their academic offerings are directed and try to adapt.”

Newbury’s history, of course, is filled with adaptations.

And its leaders seem to have made one more adaptation -- in the way they went about winding down operations.

“That will make a huge difference for lots of folks who are going to be impacted by this,” Doherty said.

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