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Disrupted plans: What happens when colleges close and students have to move on?


 St. Gregory’s University graduated its last class at the end of the fall 2017 semester. Students that did not graduate had a month to make new plans. Photo courtesy of Michael White.

 A week after St. Gregory’s University announced that it would be closing at the end of the 2017 fall semester, junior Michael White stood at a transfer fair, feeling like a senior in high school again, wondering where he could finish his degree on time.

“It was an awful situation we all had to go through,” White said. “A lot of people had a lot invested in St. Greg’s because they were seniors or working on their master’s. A lot of plans were disrupted because of that.”

St. Gregory’s announced the Board of Governors' decision to close on Nov. 8, which gave students and faculty about a month to make new plans. 

“They were honestly doing as much as they could to help students transition,” White said. “What was the tough part was that faculty and staff had a month to find new employment.”

White and his friends from St. Gregory’s aren’t alone in their situation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 66 degree-granting post-secondary institutions closed their doors in 2015-16.

White’s cheerleading coach from St. Gregory’s found new employment at nearby Oklahoma City University, and asked White and the rest of his team to join her there. White said he was excited to join a cheerleading team with a history of national championships, and was attracted by OCU’s psychology program. 

Besides cheerleading at OCU, White has joined several other campus organizations, including a fraternity.

“Those of us who have been most successful are those who have joined a lot of clubs,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who aren’t adjusting as well.”

A time of financial trouble

Two other small private schools, the Memphis College of Art and Grace University in Omaha, Neb., announced their plans to close around the same time as St. Gregory’s, and Concordia College in Alabama announced on Feb. 22 it would be ending operations at the end of the academic year.

Kent Chabotar, president emeritus at Guilford College and a founding partner of MPK&D, an education consulting group, said the institutions at highest risk are small, rural private colleges. Chabotar said it’s difficult to maintain the infrastructure you need to keep a school open on tuition from a small student population unless you have a particularly large endowment.

“Or they lack a brand identity, a niche, something they’re known for,” he said. “Those are the ones that are the most vulnerable.”

Many private institutions are having trouble balancing the number of students enrolled with the cost of enrolling them, Chabotar said, and declining student populations are leaving schools strapped for tuition money.

And an unwillingness to cut staff at the same rate student enrollment is declining has hurt some schools, he said.

“They’re losing revenue at the same time they’re keeping their expenses the same,” he said. “On the expense side, unless you’re willing to deal with staff, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Daniel Gitterman, chairperson of the UNC public policy department, said part of the decline of these schools comes from the reality of what middle class families can afford.

“It seems that small private colleges with high tuitions were going to feel pressure sooner or later,” he said. “There are now just too many public options that are just a fraction of the cost of some of these smaller privates.”

A shift in attendance

Historically Black colleges and universities have not been immune to closures, and many fit the small, rural profile of colleges at risk. Chabotar said under-funding and economically disadvantaged students put HBCUs at even greater risk.

Gitterman said there may be a shift in students who are attending HBCUs because of efforts by flagship or regional state schools to increase access for minority students.

“So I think they serve an incredibly valuable purpose, and there are still a number of students that choose them,” Gitterman said. “But I think campus by campus there is probably some hard thinking going on to continue to have the appropriate revenue flow.”

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Chabotar said he thinks the closures reflect a move toward a more public system. According to the NCES, approximately 13.1 million undergraduates are enrolled at public institutions, compared to nearly 3.9 million undergraduates enrolled at private institutions. 

“I do think you’re going to see a shakeout,” he said. “A culling of the herd as we go forward.”

But public schools are not immune to this phenomenon, Chabotar said.

“Most flagships now draw more money from the students than the state, which I find shocking,” he said. “The student percentage is going up, and the state percentage is going down. For students, just because the privates are inaccessible doesn’t mean the publics are an automatic safety valve.”

Tuition for in-state students at UNC more than doubled between the 2004-05 school year and the 2014-15 school year, steadily increasing from $3,205 to $6,423 for undergraduates. 

From 2007-08 to 2014-15, state expenditures per resident student in the UNC system fell almost $4,000.

Gitterman said it’s the responsibility of colleges to show students and families the return on investment they offer. Schools, he said, can offer a wide liberal arts curriculum, but there has to be a focus on skills that will transfer into employment.

“They have to be able to show the ROI for those students who are paying significantly more tuition,” he said. “It’s clearly that they’re voting with their feet and their wallets about whether or not it’s a worthwhile investment for them.”

Chabotar said schools can balance finances and try to avoid closures in a number of ways, including sharing resources between schools in the same area and narrowing programs to their most successful.

“What are you good at?” he said. “You can still have a wide liberal arts curriculum, but they don’t all have to be majors with their own department.”

A new start

When a school does close, the administration’s first priority is usually placing students in programs at other schools that best fit their needs and interests, Chabotar said. Degrees earned at the institution are still valid, but there are other implications for students after the school is closed.

“The problem is if the school is closed, where do you get references?” he said. “Where are the transcripts? The schools should be doing a good job of notifying alumni as to where these resources are.”

White said transcripts from St. Gregory’s are being housed at Oklahoma Baptist University.

He said the most helpful thing moving forward has been keeping a positive attitude.

“You can dwell on your situation and how bad it is or you can look at it with the perspective of this chapter in my life is closing: what’s next?” White said. “For me, it gave me the chance to start all over someplace new, and I love it here.”