When the public laments the closure or threatened closure of small colleges like Burlington College, formerly run by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wife, or Sweet Briar College in central Virginia, they mourn the loss of a piece of history, a source of pride. But rarely do they ask how those colleges actually served or are serving their students. Perhaps it’s better for students that some low-performing colleges have closed, because at least now future students won’t be as likely to be burdened with a lifetime of debt from those institutions and no degree with which to obtain a good-paying job that enables them to repay that debt.
Several small private nonprofit colleges that have been threatened with closure in recent years, for example, enrolled sizable numbers of low-income students, charged them exceptionally high prices as a function of their income, yet provided them with little positive outcome – namely, the college degree they were there to receive. Take a look at the data below for six randomly selected colleges that have closed or face closure.
Closing a school is a last resort and a decision that undoubtedly affects the lives of faculty, staff, and many others in the community — often for the worse. But at their core, schools are not job programs for adults. They’re institutions that are supposed to educate students with at least some minimal level of effectiveness. And sometimes, no matter how fraught the situation, closure may be best for vulnerable students.
We’ve seen this phenomenon play out in K-12 education. Over fierce criticism in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel made the extremely unpopular decision to close 50 under-enrolled and low-performing schools. He was vilified. But research has found that nearly all of the Chicago students displaced by Mayor Emmanuel decision moved on to schools with higher performance ratings. Research is not yet available on those students’ subsequent academic outcomes, but preliminary data from the Chicago Board of Education suggests less expulsions and suspensions and higher test scores.
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg also made the divisive decision to close 29 high schools for low performance. Research there also found that displaced students ended up enrolling in higher-performing high schools. And the benefit was even greater for future students, as current middle-schoolers attended higher-performing schools and saw a 15-point increase in graduation rates compared to students in similarly low-performing schools that did not close.
We’re not sure if politically, Mayor Emmanuel or Mayor Bloomberg still think the decision to close underperforming schools was worth the opposition. But we are sure from a policy standpoint that students, particularly poor and minority students, benefitted. And in higher education, where a combination of toughened oversight from the Obama administration and state attorney generals on for-profit colleges led to the closures of some of the worst for-profit colleges – and potentially even greater, the accrediting agency that oversaw those colleges – we’re certain that students, too, have and will continue to benefit.
For college leaders beyond the for-profit sector to suspend their ethics or rationalize away predatory behavior in the name of low-income student access, but whose ultimate underlying driving motivation is to ensure the financial security of their struggling institution, is both wrong and eventually, unsustainable. Just yesterday, four small private colleges were placed on probation for financial struggles. Moody’s rating service already has estimated that the number of four-year nonprofit colleges going out of business will triple and the merger rate will double by 2017.
But if college leaders focus on actually having their students return every year and actually graduate from their institutions within a reasonable period of time, then not only would they have a much more prudent financial strategy, but they would also be providing the education, service, and ladder of socioeconomic opportunity that they profess to produce.
From a policy standpoint, the K-12 school closure experience and lessons learned from the Obama crackdown on poor-performing for-profits schools should send a clear and urgent message to all colleges: Focus on your students. Focus on your value. And focus on the outcomes you produce for your students.
In the words of one private college provost: “If you’re seeing half the students disappear after the first year, you’ve got to ask yourself what business you’re in. Because it isn’t education.”