The Mount Ida Rorschach test
Closure raises vexing issues for private colleges and state system
TWO MASSACHUSETTS COLLEGES announced plans to close this year. The demise of Atlantic Union College in Lancaster went virtually unnoticed. The closure of Mount Ida College in Newton has created a lot of contention and continues to generate stories, editorials, and opinion columns in multiple news outlets.
The location of Mount Ida in metropolitan Boston explains part of the focus. In addition, although not a large school, Mount Ida had more students who were impacted. But the real cause of controversy is less about Mount Ida’s closing and more about the acquisition of its campus by the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The wide range of reactions to this are often expressed in heartfelt language suggesting that this development has powerful symbolic meaning in the context of higher education in Massachusetts.
To understand that context, it’s important to focus on the realities of the higher education market. Demographic trends producing fewer potential students are complicating life for all but the most elite institutions. Especially vulnerable are smaller private colleges with high acceptance rates and low endowments. It is difficult to predict when an institution might fail but the most at-risk colleges are relatively easy to identify and are widely known in the industry.
While Mount Ida students, their families, and many others were shocked by the closure announcement, there was ample data classifying it among high-risk institutions. Debt rating agencies, government bodies, accrediting commissions, and many others produce information showing which institutions to worry about.
Calling attention to uncertain viability creates a vicious circle for at-risk colleges. Survival hazard is not something a college will convey to applicants because awareness of it would likely lower admissions and compound the problem. But fairness suggests that high school guidance counselors and other advisors should make sure that students and their families understand the risks and make informed educational and financial decisions. Given the high likelihood of additional college closures in the years ahead, this is a dilemma that takes on significance for both the at-risk institutions and their potential students.
Because the closure risk is generally associated with smaller private schools, one would assume that the Mount Ida event would trigger discussion about how best to deal with similar issues in the future. But the conversation has become conflated with the topic of public higher education, including a heated debate about the value, standing, and possible animus of two branches of the University of Massachusetts. Mount Ida has become like a Rorschach ink blot where the observers’ interpretation projects their own perspective. For UMass Amherst the acquisition is a natural and appropriate evolution for the state’s flagship campus. For UMass Boston this is another in a long string of events in which decision-makers diminish the urban campus.
The Mount Ida event has also triggered reactions that go beyond two UMass campuses and reflect Massachusetts’s long-standing diffidence about the relationship between public and private higher education.
Because we have so many private institutions, the Commonwealth is often ambivalent about how much to support public institutions. State Rep. Jay Kaufman, chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Revenue, crystalized that ambiguity when he wrote in the Boston Globe that the large number of colleges in Massachusetts means “that the state may not need – or be able to afford – 29 taxpayer-funded campuses.” For him, the Mount Ida event provides a rationale to shrink public higher education to free the Commonwealth from the need “to maintain unnecessary and, at the end of the day, unsustainable campuses.” Perhaps this is a strategy to save some of the private colleges that would otherwise close in the years ahead by expanding the survival hazard to include public institutions.
More than 200,000 college students are now part of the public system in Massachusetts. They and their families would oppose the argument to shrink state spending on public higher education. But the fact is that such spending has already substantially diminished. A report from the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center calculates that, adjusted for inflation, the Commonwealth’s spending on public higher education is 14 percent lower than it was in 2001. Because the number of students has grown, the per student spending has decreased by 31 percent. This means that the cost of supporting public institutions has shifted significantly from the state to the enrolled students. They pay tuition and fees totaling 61 percent of the institutional budgets, more than double the previous level.
Some other states have reduced spending on public higher education in recent years but, because Massachusetts was low to start with, the decline here now ranks us 43rd in spending as a percentage of personal income. A comparison of states published by the American Council on Education found that, if Massachusetts maintains the trend of reduced appropriations, its funding for public higher education will reach zero in 2035. Between now and then some public institutions would disappear, probably producing even more controversy than Mount Ida because of the way they are embedded in communities across the state.
As ironic as it is that the closure of Mount Ida could prompt a debate about the funding of public higher education in Massachusetts, that is a valuable outcome. The state’s community colleges, regional public universities, and the UMass system are struggling because of the continually reduced state funding. If there’s a consensus that appropriations should decrease further in the years ahead, it’s better to make it explicit and plan accordingly, as Kaufman proposed. Inducing the campuses to fight among themselves over a shrinking pie is wasteful, destructive, and confusing to students.
Edward M. Murphy was head of three state agencies between 1979 and 1995—the Department of Youth Services, the Department of Mental Health, and the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He subsequently ran several health care companies in the private sector before retiring. He currently serves as a trustee of Bridgewater State University.