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.”
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (R-IL) is holding hostage billions of dollars in state education funding. If the Democratic state legislature does not approve Rauner’s demands on tax freezes, collective bargaining, worker compensation, and inequitable school spending, he will veto the 2017 budget wholesale.
The governor is, according to Chicago Mayor Raum Emanuel, reenacting the story of Moby Dick, where Rauner is dead-set on tackling the whale, in this case State House Speaker Michael Madigan, instead of caring for the lives of the ship’s passengers, Illinois citizens. Meanwhile, Rauner and state Republicans are dismissing the mayor’s call for desperate financial help for Chicago Public Schools as a bailout.
The state, by the way, has been operating without a budget since last July.
If this tactic reminds you of the brinksmanship strategy employed by Ted Cruz, the Tea Party, and Congressional Republicans with threatening to default on the national debt if Democrats didn’t repeal Obamacare, well, it should. Cruz and Congressional Republicans threatened the bond market. Rauner is using the future of Illinois children, among other needy populations, as his political pawn.
In education policy, much research has been prepared on the idea that schools must be accountable to their students. In K-12, schools must track students’ academic outcomes annually and focus attention and interventions on low-performing subgroups of students and schools. In higher ed., similar discussions are mounting on the need for colleges to be accountable for student success both during their academic careers and after graduation.
But this budget impasse makes one thing very clear: So too must lawmakers hold up their side of the equation.
Democrats in the legislature argue that the budget process should not be about promoting policy reforms, but about distributing sufficient and equitable funding for social services, including the state’s K-12 and higher education systems.
“The state shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. The state has the primary responsibility for financing public education.”
So much for respect of the rule of law.
Currently, Illinois is ranked dead last out of all states for education spending from the budget – only a little over a quarter of dollars spent on education comes from the state, with most coming from local property taxes. The state, in fact, has been defunding education by a total of $1.4 billion dollars since 2009!
While politicians at the state capitol argue, the President of Chicago State University, Thomas Calhoun, has planned massive layoffs and a shortened school year.
School districts across the state are worried they won’t open on time.
At a time when progress was being made on postsecondary education enrollment, students are losing hope in their state schools, forcing them to look out-of-state for college, if at all. K-12 schools will be forced to run on reserve funds and programming as well as social services could be ceased.
How can we approach education policy by promising students funding in exchange for hard work and good grades, if we can’t hold up our side of the bargain?
In the short-term, partisan quarreling has resulted in a last-minute stop-gap measure signed by Gov. Rauner that funneled $600 million to help struggling higher education institutions. But this short-term measure only lasts until the end of the summer, keeping state colleges and universities on edge for future prospects.
More than a dozen superintendents sent a letter to the governor’s office, expressing their frustration with the political games played in Springfield taking pertinence over the lives of schoolchildren. This may fall upon deaf ears, however, as the legislative session has ended for the summer. But lawmakers have “promised” to continue working after the session ends and that they’ll consider a short-term solution in the coming weeks.
If not though, the fight continues in September when lawmakers gather again.
Lawmakers must remove themselves from their comfortable political corners, stop jockeying for position, and carry out their constitutional obligation to fund Illinois’ future.
It will take several years for the effects of this battle to wear off and it will no doubt affect disproportionally low-income families – especially in Chicago — who will be forced to bear the brunt of any negative financial ramifications.
As the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn notes, “It will take courage on the part of legislators to get Chicago off that list of most disadvantaged schools and offer a better future to all kids in Illinois growing up in property-poor districts.”
As advocates for education reform, it is our job to look out for these children’s lives, and to provide a voice for those without.
Education is at the foundation of making those lives better.
Illinois state lawmakers should do their jobs, provide funding for education, and advance school reform and improvement. Do not hold innocent students’ lives hostage.