Metro

Mount Ida projected an image of success right until it folded

Faculty, students, and prospective students were surprised by Mount Ida’s UMass deal.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/File
Faculty, students, and prospective students were surprised by Mount Ida’s UMass deal.

NEWTON — As recently as March, everything seemed to be going well at Mount Ida College.

Professors had just signed new contracts for the fall. Incoming students had mailed deposits. Tour guides were leading tours around the sprawling suburban campus.

Suddenly, everything changed. On April 6, Mount Ida’s president announced the school would close in May. Suddenly professors had no jobs; students would have to find new schools.

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The weeks that followed have been a chaotic swirl of finger-pointing and recriminations as angry parents, students, state regulators, politicians, and the public have been left to wonder what went so wrong, so quickly.

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A Globe review and subsequent statements from Mount Ida officials reveal that while the small liberal arts college projected a public image of growing success, more quietly the school was struggling to stay ahead of mounting debt.

In a statement to the Globe last week, the school offered the most detailed explanation so far of why it closed so abruptly.

The college found itself in a crisis of liquidity, the statement said. It did not have enough money to pay employees starting in June and could not borrow more or sell property fast enough to fix the problems. Budget cuts would not have solved the problems, the statement said.

“This is just another example of a college that speaks with great confidence that everything is fine, we’re doing well, and poof, it disappears,” said Richard Vedder, a retired economics professor at Ohio University who studies higher education.

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Vedder predicted the swift closure of small colleges will become frequent over the next decade, especially in Boston, where schools like Mount Ida are surrounded by more prominent, better-endowed institutions.

There are glimmers of Mount Ida’s mounting financial troubles in its tax filings and the balance sheets filed with the state each year. And its recent merger attempt with nearby Lasell College was a clear indication that Mount Ida was having trouble going it alone.

But for faculty, students, and prospective students, the closure was a shock, leaving them to wonder if something had suddenly gone wrong and, if not, why the school didn’t give them more warning.

Even in an e-mail that Mount Ida president Barry Brown sent to the campus on March 23 to announce that the Lasell merger had fallen apart, he touted the school’s growing profile.

“Over the past six years, Mount Ida has undergone extraordinary growth, increasing its enrollment from under 1,100 to close to 1,600 students,” wrote Brown, who took over in 2012. He said that students’ academic accomplishments and the quality of the programs had improved, leading US News & World Report to raise the school’s ranking.

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Mount Ida had made the same case to accreditors, who had just finished visiting the school as part of a routine reaccreditation process. A study prepared by the school in August 2017 and posted on the Mount Ida website as part of reaccreditation also noted the many improvements taking place under Brown’s leadership.

After longtime president Carol Matteson left in 2011, the school had a period of upheaval and presidential turnover that led to unstable finances, physical neglect, and declining enrollment, according to the college’s study.

Brown, a former Suffolk University provost and real estate attorney, reversed many of the downward trends. He invested $30 million in repairing buildings and remaking the campus, according to the study. Enrollment grew, students’ GPAs increased, and the first-year retention rate improved. Specialized programs expanded, and the school began to develop master’s degree programs. Mount Ida predicted it would have 1,800 students by 2019. The student body is 35 percent first-generation and 38 percent low-income.

But the study also acknowledged financial problems. Operating expenses grew faster than revenue from 2012 to 2016, resulting in a deficit that was expected to continue until 2021. But the school said it had a plan to remain a going concern.

In the short term it would need to sell unused property. In the longer term, it would expand facilities to meet the growing number of students and encourage more alumni to donate.

In 2016, it received an anonymous gift of $8 million, but otherwise giving has been minimal, the study said.

As a result, Mount Ida’s budget depended on student tuition, which made up three-quarters of its operating revenue, according to the college’s study. Tuition plus room and board was $46,000, although many students received a significant discount.

The college sold 5.5 acres for $7 million in May 2017 to a local church and used the money for operations. It was in negotiations with other buyers to sell more land, the study said. In addition, in May 2017, in order to “bridge cash flow needs,” the school took out a $4 million line of credit, according to the study.

“Based upon a combination of land sales, philanthropic contributions, and revolving line of credit, the college is confident that it will raise sufficient funds to meet its liquidity needs,” the study said.

Those who were keeping an eye on the college knew the school’s finances were tenuous but believed the merger with Lasell would happen. Barbara Brittingham, president of the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education at the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which accredits schools, said the school’s metrics indicated that it had the situation under control.

“One thing that’s unusual is that those indicators were in a positive direction,” she said. “It did have assets with the land, and they seemed to be making good progress with a partner, and they had a somewhat larger number of students than some institutions did that are in danger of closing.”

The college has a debt portfolio of approximately $55 million, a combination of tax-exempt bonds and taxable borrowing from a private lender. Its operating revenues were around $42 million and operating expenses around $43 million.

Richard Gavegnano, president of East Boston Savings Bank, which held the majority of the debt, said the college was current on payments.

“The loan was secure, the loan was paid, business as usual,” Gavegnano said.

Carlos Santiago, the commissioner of the state Department of Higher Education, said he is also still waiting for answers from the school on why it closed so abruptly.

“We don’t know; we are still awaiting information,” he said. Santiago met with school administrators last week and plans to meet with them again this week.

The others waiting for information are the Mount Ida students and professors. Faculty have each been promised three months’ severance under the tentative agreement with the University of Massachusetts, which has arranged to buy the Newton campus. Students are trying to find programs into which they can transfer for the fall. Those in good standing have been offered automatic admission to UMass Dartmouth, though that school doesn’t offer all the specific degree programs available at Mount Ida.

Professors said finding new jobs is especially difficult because the academic hiring schedule follows roughly the same timeline as college admissions, and by now it’s largely too late to get a job for September.

Families say they are growing tired of fighting for information from the school. They said they feel duped by Brown into enrolling at a school that professed to be on an upward trajectory but was actually struggling.

“How long has it been going on?” asked Steve Hopkins, the father of a student in the veterinary technology program.

Last week his daughter, Meghan, texted her mother to say she was exhausted by all of it. She had slept through four alarms and missed class.

“I can’t do this anymore,” she wrote. “This constant being pulled every which way for every class and then trying to find another school it’s too much I’m so exhausted.”

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.