Sunday, February 12, 2017

St. Joseph's College is closing: Is the bell tolling for small liberal arts colleges?

St. Joseph's College, which was founded in 1889, is  shutting its doors in May. Officials cited several reasons for  closing: fierce competition for students, accreditation problems and increased federal regulation. St. Joseph's president, Robert Pastoor, said the college will need $100 million to reopen; and the college's friends and alumni are hoping to raise the funds.

Students organized a vote of no confidence against Pastoor and four other college leaders, but St. Joseph's decline and fall may not have been their fault. Small liberal arts colleges are in a precarious position all over the United States. The U.S. Department of Education has 500 colleges on its heightened-cash-monitoring watch list; and many of the schools on that list are small liberal arts colleges.

St. Joseph's, with only 900 students, just didn't have the resources to successfully navigate its way through rough financial waters. St. Catharine College, another small Catholic liberal arts college, announced it is closing less than a year ago. Like St. Joseph's, St. Catharine College cited increased federal regulation as one of the factors that brought it down.

By and large, the higher education community is made up of liberal Democrats; and almost no one protested the deluge of regulations that came out of the Department of Education during the Obama administration. Public universities, large private universities, and institutions with healthy endowment funds have been able to weather the tightening regulatory environment. Indeed, they have no choice. Virtually no college or university can survive without regular infusions of federal student aid money--and that money comes with regulatory strings attached.

Without question, many small liberal arts colleges are going to be squeezed out of existence over the next few years due to the same challenges that St. Joseph's and St. Catherine faced. Those that survive will have this profile:
  • Tuition rates below their competition; 
  • Strong academic programs that lead to good jobs such as jobs in medicine, health sciences, or criminal justice; 
  • High teaching standards; and
  • Endowment funds to buffer economic stress.
Many college and university leaders deplore the appointment of the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  You can probably count DeVos's higher-education supporters on the fingers of one hand.

But maybe college leaders should give DeVos a chance to address the financial crisis in higher education before attacking her. If she acts sensibly to trim the thicket of federal regulation, it is quite possible that more small liberal arts colleges will survive.

And surely that would be a good thing.



References

Meredith Colias. Rensselaer stunned after announcement of St. Joseph's closure. Chicago Post-Tribune, February 10, 2016.

Alexandra Kruczek & Alexis Moberger. St. Joseph's College president will call it quits in May. WLFI.com, February 9, 2017.

Another Small Private Closes Its Doors. Inside Higher Ed, June 1, 2016. Accesible at https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2016/06/01/another-small-private-closes-its-doors-dowling-college?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=a0fafeb056-DNU20160601&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-a0fafeb056-198564813

Paul Fain. The Department and St. Catharine.  Inside Higher Ed, June 2, 2016. Accessible at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/06/02/small-private-college-closes-blames-education-department-sanction?utm_source=Inside+Higher+Ed&utm_campaign=3d1c6eed79-DNU20160602&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1fcbc04421-3d1c6eed79-198565653


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