Trying Times for “HEIs”

By John O. Harney

It’s an especially bruising time for New England colleges and universities, which we now call higher education institutions (HEIs)—to cover all the new varieties and hybrids.

NEBHE has noted that the HEIs face threats based on shifts in academic content and delivery (increasingly online), student demography (diversifying but shrinking) and institutional finances (challenged). Plus, consider the parallel but contradictory forces of rising expectations and eroding public perceptions of higher education.

The news bulletins from the week of June 15 seemed to confirm a pattern of vulnerability that NEBHE has been tracking.

First, we learned of Marian Court College’s decision to close its Swampscott, Mass. campus. Some colleagues guessed the Catholic college’s seaside property would be reinvented as condos (maybe like Bradford College after it closed its Haverhill, Mass. campus in 2000). That would put the property on the tax rolls at least. Though perhaps better, it could be taken by eminent domain to help house needy people in the next community down the coast, Lynn. Swampscott, by the way, is the home of the Massachusetts governor, but eminent domain is a risky bet in New England (especially since New London, Conn., took homes to build an office park that never materialized).

Around the same time as the Marian Court news, the Boston Globe reported that Wheelock College was facing financial and faculty challenges. Vermont Public Radio noted Vermont Technical College’s deficit was shrinking “But It’s Still In The Red.”

To top it off, Maine’s Salt Institute for Documentary Studies announced it would close.

NEBHE had observed in the past that the HEIs best-positioned to survive would be the ones with “differentiated” missions. Like Salt’s.

These June announcements come on top a of a year’s worth of sky-is-falling reports about the University of Southern Maine and Burlington College.

In light of the challenges, NEBHE and partners have posted a set of tools and resource dubbed the Higher Education Innovation Challenge (HEIC). Their goal is to transform higher education’s business model and pass the savings on to students. One aspect they have been vigilant about is so-called “tuition discounting.” When it’s based on need, it can help students afford college. But too much discounting, reason the partners, will violate the business model, sap the bottom line and, in the worst case, lead to more closings.

The HEIC includes an Institutional Indicators tool to help college and university presidents, CFOs, CAOs, faculty members and trustees assess key challenges facing their institution’s long-term financial sustainability.

The recent spate of bad news for HEIs suggest there is no time to waste.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

This piece was cross-posted at JOH NEJHE.


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