Mills College is one of several dozen private liberal arts colleges that are struggling to survive. Rick Seltzer's excellent story on Mills, which appeared yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, reported that the college faced a $9 million budget gap in 2016 but was able to reduce the deficit to $4.3 million by making stringent cuts.
Mills once filled a niche as an elite West Coast women's college, but apparently that identity isn't working anymore. Mills has less than 1,000 undergraduates and about 400 graduate students. It is struggling to find the revenue to fund a $57 million budget.
So what's the solution? Mills' new president, Elizabeth Hillman, announced that Mills' top recruitment priority will be LGBTQ students--students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning.
But how will a LGBTQ focus work at a women's college? Will it accept only bisexual women or can male bisexuals apply? In the Q for questioning category, will it accept biological males who are considering a female identity or just biological females who are pondering a male identity?
Sounds complicated and confusing. Actually, it sounds desperate.
And there's more. Mills' financial stabilization plan calls for a tuition reset. Currently, tuition is pegged at about $45,000 a year, but the college's discount rate is 57 percent. Clearly that pricing structure is not sustainable.
Mills has a financial stabilization plan, but the details are hazy. "Whether it is a lower price or a more direct and straightforward price, we anticipate that we will also market the new curriculum and a tuition reset together much more heavily than in the past," the college says opaquely.
What does Mills mean when it says it is considering "a more direct and straightforward price"? Is that an admission that its current pricing structure is dishonest?
The college also hopes to enroll more women who are focused on science, technology. engineering, and mathematics (STEM). But the college's STEM focus will be hard to sustain when the college is cutting faculty positions and slashing employment benefits. Seltzer's article reports that Mills cut retirement contributions from 9 percent of a faculty member's salary to 6 percent and plans to reduce it further to 2 percent. Not a great benefits package. So how will Mills attract and retain the professors it needs to sharpen its focus on STEM?
Finally, Mills plans to roll out a "signature experience" for undergraduates "in an attempt to stand out and attract students." What will that look like? It's not clear, and Seltzer's article asks a pertinent question: "[I]f many colleges have signature experiences, can any of them truly stand out?"
I wish Mills College well, but the hodgepodge of strategies President Hillman sketched out does not impress me. More LGBTQ students, more STEM students, more straightforward pricing, a signature experience, slashing employment benefits---in my mind it all adds up to "quiet desperation" (Thoreau's phrase).
At some point, liberal arts college leaders need to face facts: dozens of small colleges will close within the next ten years. They are the organizational equivalent of a terminally ill hospital patient.
And when college trustees and administrators know that their institution is on life support, are they acting ethically when they continue to enroll new students? After all, there is a distinct possibility that the LGBTQ freshman (or freshperson) who enrolls at Mills in the fall of 2017 will be an alumna of a college that no longer exists in 2027.
And is it ethical for college deans to hire junior faculty members who will start their careers at an institution that may not be around when they retire?
All across the United States, private liberal arts colleges are on the ropes. Many are grasping for revenue-generating strategies like a dying person searching for a miracle drug. But there comes a time--and that time is fast approaching for many small liberal arts colleges--when a college should simply close.
Scott Jaschik. 'Financial Emergency' at Mills. Inside Higher Ed, May 17, 2017.
Rick Seltzer. Mills tries to balance cuts and efforts to grow revenue as it seeks to dig out from financial hole. Inside Higher Ed, May 31, 2017.
Kellie Woodhouse. Trying to Survive. Inside Higher Ed, May 12, 2015.