Bloomfield College needs a partner.
The small private college in New Jersey is seeking philanthropic support and institutional partners to help keep its doors open. Absent some kind of intervention, the college may close before the end of the 2022-23 academic year.
It’s unusual for a college to be so up front about its financial issues, experts say. Typically, such discussions occur behind the scenes with other institutional leaders who are interested in exploring a partnership.
“We’ve been working hard to identify and explore potential strategic alliances with other higher education institutions for nearly a year, but nothing has been finalized yet and time is growing short,” said Marcheta P. Evans, president of the college.
The public announcement comes with risks, said Neil Lefkowitz, a partner at the law firm Loeb & Loeb who has worked on several mergers, acquisitions and consolidations of colleges. Students may be less likely to enroll if they are unsure they can graduate before the college closes. Evans said Tuesday that the college considered that potential outcome, but it still felt a responsibility to alert students and employees about the status of the college sooner rather than later.
“When I first became president of Bloomfield College, I made a commitment to the community to be transparent and affirmed we would work together as a team. This is that time. We evaluated all of those risks, but we also feel an extraordinary responsibility to faculty and staff -- and to our students and their families -- to be forthright and transparent,” Evans said.
The college’s accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, may also take action in response to the announcement, threatening Bloomfield’s accreditation, Lefkowitz said.
“I think Middle States will question whether they are in compliance” with financial standards, he said. “I think they'll give them a break. I don’t think they’ll put them on a very impaired status, but I think they’ll take some action.”
Still, the public announcement could serve Bloomfield well -- and it’s likely that Evans had few other options, said John MacIntosh, managing partner of SeaChange Capital Partners (and an occasional opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed).
“I think by doing something like this -- bravely and proactively -- they probably give themselves time to engage with partners while still ensuring that the students are well taken care of,” MacIntosh said.
The financial problems that put Bloomfield in this spot echo those of dozens of other small private colleges in the United States. The college, which primarily serves Black and Hispanic or Latino students, has seen its enrollment decline since 2011. During the 2019-20 academic year, the college enrolled only 1,598 undergraduate students, compared to 1,896 undergraduates during the 2016-17 academic year and 2,018 students during the 2010-11 academic year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The pandemic only worsened this decline, Evans said.
Nearly three-quarters of Bloomfield students are Pell Grant eligible, and college officials have worked hard to make sure students aren’t turned away because of the cost. Tuition for the 2021-22 academic year is $30,680 -- the lowest price of any New Jersey private college, Evans said. Even so, college officials have struggled to bring students back amid the pandemic; their hands-on admissions strategy doesn’t work well online.
“Our admissions team is very high-touch in our local schools, and Zoom hasn’t been an effective alternative to those in-person interactions,” she said.
Over the past several years, the college deployed a number of cost-cutting strategies to shore up the college’s finances, including reducing operational spending, delaying construction and renovations, terminating leases and selling property, and implementing a hiring freeze, Evans said. None worked well enough to serve as a long-term solution for the college.
In a town hall-style meeting with students, faculty and staff members Tuesday, Evans laid out the college’s uncertain future.
“It is widely known that the college has been confronted with enrollment and financial challenges for a decade,” Evans said. “I laid out the situation fully, and questions from the college community were answered by a panel that included the chair and vice chair of the Board of Trustees along with several members of my executive team.”
Inside Higher Ed reached out to several faculty members and students for comment, but none responded Tuesday.
Bloomfield’s call for help is not likely in vain. Several philanthropists, including MacKenzie Scott, Reed Hastings and Patty Quillin, have paid particular attention to institutions like Bloomfield that serve Black, Hispanic and Latino students in recent years.
In an email interview with Inside Higher Ed, Evans discussed what led to the college’s precarious financial situation and how the institution hopes to chart a path forward.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Describe the college’s current financial situation. How much longer can you operate without outside assistance or intervention?
A: The college has sufficient resources to meet all its obligations and complete the 2021-2022 academic year. However, without significant philanthropic assistance -- or the intervention of a like-minded higher education institution -- we would not be able to know with certainty that Bloomfield College can complete the 2022-2023 academic year.
Q: Before COVID-19 hit, it appeared that Bloomfield had turned a corner after years of enrollment declines. Is it fair to say that the pandemic and its continuing effects have made it impossible for the college to sustain itself?
A: The pandemic exacerbated enrollment declines, especially among the Black and brown communities we serve, as well as first-generation and socioeconomically challenged populations. Additionally, the declining number of high school students, the high cost of college and other factors have hit independent colleges like ours particularly hard, and it’s unlikely they’ll be reversed anytime soon.
Q: What is the college doing now to try to bring enrollment back up amid the waning pandemic?
A: Recruitment remains a significant challenge. Our prospective students have had a disrupted high school experience that has not only impacted their educational progress but has also significantly impeded the work that our school counselor colleagues do in preparing students for the college search process.
At the height of the pandemic, and still now, Bloomfield has offered room grants to low-income students and has established a food pantry -- knowing that many of our students have housing and food insecurity issues.
Q: What strategies has the college tried -- before and after your arrival in 2019 -- to improve enrollment and finances?
A: There have been multiple strategies employed over the years. Such as financial aid strategies, new approaches to digital marketing, more intrusive retention strategies and enhanced recruitment. Our students tend to be first generation and first in their families to attend college. They -- and their families -- sacrifice much to take advantage of this opportunity. Seventy-one percent of our students are Pell Grant eligible, and many work one or two jobs while taking a full course load. To help lessen the burden of attending college, Bloomfield has offered reduced -- and, in some cases, free -- housing to some applicants, including yearlong accommodations.
The college has implemented budget mitigation measures over the course of several years, including reducing operational spending, delaying some capital improvements, terminating leases, selling minimally used properties, freezing salaries and pension contributions, and instituting a hiring freeze, among other measures. Most recently, the college offered voluntary separation to certain employees.
Q: It’s unusual for an institution to announce its financial troubles without having secured a partner. What led you to go public about your situation now?
A: Bloomfield College is a special place. We are the only four-year higher education institution in New Jersey that is a predominantly Black institution, Hispanic-serving institution and minority-serving institution.
We felt it was in the best interests of the students, faculty and staff to announce that we were seeking financial and institutional support now to reach out to philanthropists and academic institutions that may not know of Bloomfield College but who share our commitment to underserved communities and our mission to socially and economically lift up our students, their families and their communities.
Q: Did you explore any merger or acquisition options behind the scenes before making this announcement? If so, why didn’t the college pursue those?
A: Yes, since early 2021, the college’s leadership team has held discussions with a number of potential higher education partners and engaged in detailed negotiations with several institutions. In some instances these discussions have focused on programmatic opportunities that could be mutually beneficial to both institutions, while a number of the conversations focused on synergies that would have more formally linked the two institutions together in a substantial way. Successful higher education partnerships are complex. They rely on a confluence of mission, needs, programming and a host of other things. We are actively pursuing several potential opportunities and are open to inquiries from others.
Q: How aware are students and employees about the college’s financial situation?
A: It is widely known that the college has been confronted with enrollment and financial challenges for a decade. Because I want them to be fully informed of our current position and strategies, I held a town hall meeting for the entire community Tuesday, Oct. 19. I laid out the situation fully, and questions from the college community were answered by a panel that included the chair and vice chair of the Board of Trustees along with several members of my executive team.
Q: What are your primary goals for the institution’s future? Are you determined to remain independent, or is it more important to find a path that ensures a good outcome for your students and your employees?
A: Our primary goal is to identify a strategic partner who shares Bloomfield College’s commitment to the rich diversity of our student body and is eager to help us in supporting these students and our community. We are committed to our mission, which is best served by finding a pathway that ensures a good outcome for our students and employees.
Q: What would be the ideal response to your call for support?
A: (laughing) Ideally -- two phone calls: one from a philanthropist who offers to meet our needs no matter what they are. And the second from a like-minded institution that says, Bloomfield College, you’re the higher ed partner we’ve been dreaming of -- let’s go!