Thursday, June 2, 2016

St. Catharine College and Dowling College are closing: "After us, the deluge."

After us, the deluge.  I care not what happens when I am dead and gone.

Marquise de Pompadour

Just this week, two small colleges announced they are closing: St. Catharine College, a Catholic institution in Kentucky; and Dowling College, a private school on Long Island.  

Clearly, a lot of small private colleges are in trouble. Last autumn, Moody's Investor Service predicted a sharp increase in the number of college closures, forecasting that 15 would close in 2017. I think Moody's is far too optimistic. By 2017, I think we will see three or four colleges shutting down every month.

What's going on? Several things.

Small colleges have priced themselves out of their markets. First, many small non-elite colleges have priced themselves out of their markets. Tuition has been rising every year for the past 20 years, and even obscure little colleges now charge students from $30,000 to $35,000 a year, just for tuition. For years, students and their parents passively submitted to yearly tuition hikes; but no more. Mom and Pop aren't willing to pay $100,000 for Suzie or Johnny to get a bachelor's degree from an undistinguished private college.

It's true that small private colleges are heavily discounting their tuition--almost 50 percent for first-time freshmen. And it is true that students can take out student loans to pay for their college tuition. But families are not sure whether they will get a tuition discount big enough to fit their budgets or whether they are getting as good a discount as another family gets. They've lost trust in the integrity of the admission process.

And young people have finally begun reading the newspapers and are waking up to the fact that student-loan debt can be a financial death sentence for graduates who don't quickly find good jobs. They have become wary about enrolling at a little college named after a saint they've never heard of. Who in the hell is Saint Scholastica  anyway?

Onerous federal regulations have raised operating costs. So price is a factor.  But there is another reason why small colleges are closing. Federal regulation have become too onerous for small schools to manage. They simply cannot afford to comply with ever more burdensome regulations that spew out of the Department of Education.  The Department's 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter on sexual harassment triggered a flurry of new college regulations, policies, and training programs to meet DOE's heightened standards for complying with Title IX. DOE's new transgender restroom rules will cost colleges money, and the rules will be a real headache for the little religious colleges that pride themselves on their traditional moral values.

Here's an example of how colleges are being subject to more and more federal regulation. Virginia Tech suffered a horrible tragedy when a deranged gunman massacred more than thirty students in 2007. The University was sued for negligence after the incident, but the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Virginia Tech was not liable under Virginia tort law.

But the Department of Education concluded that Virginia Tech violated the Clery Act in the way it alerted students about an ongoing threat and assessed a fine against the University. The fine wasn't large compared to Virginia Tech's overall budget, but the University spent a lot of money defending against DOE's charge, and it will spend even more trying to make sure it does not run afoul of the Clery Act again.

Virginia Tech is big enough and rich enough to deal with DOE's mandates, but hundreds of small colleges don't have the resources for dealing with the ever growing complexity of the federal regulatory environment.

St. Catharine College is a case in point. It got squeezed by DOE, which held up its federal student aid money based on some technical issue. The college sued but apparently didn't get relief. This week it announced its closure, which it said was triggered by DOE sanctions.

Small liberal arts colleges are headed for extinction and there is no way to revive them.  Small colleges have implemented all sorts of strategies to keep their enrollments up and maintain their revenues. Many have tried to reinvent themselves by hiring marketing firms to enhance their images and juice their enrollments.

By and large, this strategy has failed. Let's face it: hiring a marketing firm to design an edgy college logo or a catchy slogan is no remedy for the massive problems facing the nation's small liberal arts colleges.

I don't see any way to revive the small liberal arts college. Their tuition rates are too high, and offering heavy discounts has not lured middle class students into small-college classrooms.

Moreover, the Department of Education does not care whether it is regulating small colleges out of business. The DOE minions probably gave each other high fives when they heard St. Catherine is closing its doors.

Nor is there any way for colleges to walk away from their total dependence on federal student aid and the federal regulations that come with it. The colleges drank the Kool Aid of federal student-loan money, and their is no antidote.

If you are an administrator or a professor at a small college and you are nearing retirement, perhaps you don't care about the demise of liberal arts colleges. As Marquise de Pompadour put it: "After us the deluge.  I care not what happens when I am dead and gone." But a young person with a new Ph.D. would be a fool to try to build a career by taking a job at a small liberal arts college. 


Another Small Private Closes Its Doors. Inside Higher Ed, June 1, 2016. Accesible at

Paul Fain. The Department and St. Catharine.  Inside Higher Ed, June 2, 2016. Accessible at

Lyndsey Layton. Virginia Tech pays fine for failure to warn campus during 2007 massacre. Washington Post, April 16, 2014.

Kellie Woodhouse. Closures to Triple. Inside Higher Education, September 28, 2015. Accessile at


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