Pine Manor College, which enrolls mostly low-income and first-generation students, was already struggling financially. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the Chestnut Hill institution’s future beyond this semester has grown increasingly bleaker, according to state regulators and the regional accreditation agency.
The New England Commission of Higher Education and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education on Monday cautioned that while they were trying to help Pine Manor stabilize its finances, it was uncertain whether the college could remain open as it is beyond this academic year.
“Owing to the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19), the College’s financial situation has become uncertain, such that it cannot confirm that it can sustain full operations at the current levels beyond the current academic year,” according to a statement published on the commission’s website.
Pine Manor may be the first example of how dire the higher education marketplace has become for many small institutions in the wake of the pandemic.
Higher education experts have warned that many small colleges were under financial stress before COVID-19 swept across the globe, but the pandemic has made matters worse. Schools have been forced to empty their dorms and go online to contain the spread of coronavirus. As a result, they’ve had to spend money to refund or credit students for room and board that they are no longer using and dip into reserves to upgrade their online teaching capabilities.
Many colleges have been forced to cancel money-making summer programs and aren’t sure whether they will be able to open as usual in the fall and how many students will enroll.
Pine Manor had a robust business renting its wooded grounds neighboring Chestnut Hill mansions for weddings and other events, but it’s unclear when the government will actually allow public gatherings to resume.
During the school year, more than 360 students enroll at Pine Manor. Most of them are Black and Hispanic, and more than three out of four students receive federal Pell grants, a marker for poverty. The college educates among the highest share of low-income students in the state, according to higher education officials.
Considering the vulnerable populations that Pine Manor serves, the accrediting agency is trying to help the school find a way forward, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the regional accreditor.
“Pine Manor College has been on the commission’s radar. It serves an important and vulnerable population, but it’s not a wealthy institution,” Brittingham said. “They’re being very responsible in trying to figure out how they could move forward.”
Pine Manor College president Tom O’Reilly did not return calls seeking comment on Monday. But in a joint statement with the accreditor and state higher education officials, O’Reilly said the college is working to remain a “home” for its students.
Over the past few years, O’Reilly has stressed that Pine Manor’s close-knit student population is what makes the campus special. More than 90 percent of Pine Manor students found employment or enrolled in advanced studies within six months of graduating, O’Reilly said.
And students and the college fought off efforts in 2017 by the town of Brookline to seize land from the college to build an elementary school.
“The College’s enrollment, retention, fundraising, and finances have shown remarkable strength as Pine Manor College has been innovative in generating diverse revenues streams to fund the College and student learning at an affordable price,” O’Reilly said in a statement.
Brittingham said the college has in recent days has found financial support from various quarters. But whether it would be enough to keep the college afloat in the long term was unclear.
The federal coronavirus stimulus package includes aid for colleges and students, but it falls billions of dollars short of what higher education lobbyists had requested. Still, Pine Manor may be able to access some of that money.
Nonetheless, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Pine Manor officials were in conversations with state officials to develop contingency plans for students should the college have to shut down.
“The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) is working with Pine Manor College to ensure that, in the event the institution is unable to sustain full operations within the next 18 months, students will have opportunities to transfer to another institution of higher education with minimal disruption to their education," according to the joint statement.
Pine Manor officials will meet with the regional accreditor later this month to provide an update on its finances, Brittingham said.
Brittingham said she has been checking with both public and private colleges and universities in recent weeks as the pandemic has unfolded to determine whether they will be able to withstand the increasing financial pressures.