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New leader will join regional accrediting group as New England colleges struggle with their finances

Lawrence Schall, the new president of NECHE.
Lawrence Schall, the new president of NECHE.Becky Stein

An Atlanta college president who steered his small private institution out of financial turmoil has been hired to lead the region’s higher education accrediting agency at a time when New England colleges and universities face unprecedented financial challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and broader demographic shifts.

The New England Commission of Higher Education announced Wednesday that Lawrence M. Schall would become president of the organization effective July 20. He takes over for Barbara Brittingham. President since 2006, she said last fall that she planned to retire.

Schall, president of Olgethorpe University for 15 years, ends his tenure there at the end of June. He was previously an administrator at Swarthmore College. While he has never worked in New England, his experience turning around a struggling school was noted by the accrediting agency.

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“Larry Schall brings extensive experience in post-secondary education and in facilitating consortial relationships among institutions,” said Kumble Subbuswamy, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “His particular expertise in college finances is a major asset at this time, as NECHE members face very serious fiscal challenges."

Declining enrollment and budgetary woes have forced at least 17 New England colleges to shut down or merge since 2016, according to the news site Education Dive. Just last month, the 300-student Pine Manor College announced it would merge with nearby Boston College.

It’s a trend that many experts anticipate will accelerate due to the pandemic, since many campuses may continue to lose room-and-board and other revenue because of social distancing requirements, and they may have to spend more to develop online teaching tools.

Schall said one of his priorities will be to help educational institutions remain viable.

The accrediting agency reviews academic programs and provides financial oversight for 222 public and private higher education institutions. Its board is comprised primarily of college and university leaders.

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“Everything that we’re seeing now is an acceleration of everything that was on everybody’s radar,” Schall said. The schools that are doing well will continue to do so, but for those that are struggling, “can they put together and execute plans that will keep them viable?” Schall asked.

At 1,260-student Oglethorpe, more than 43 percent of the undergraduates receive federal Pell grants, a marker of poverty. When Schall arrived in 2005, Oglethorpe enrolled fewer than 1,000 students and was running a $3 million budget deficit. It was at risk of losing its accreditation in 2008, according to media reports.

Schall said he had to cut spending by leaving positions unfilled, but also kept costs steady even as the university grew. Schall said he developed relationships with philanthropic organizations that have bolstered the university’s funding. He has also tried to drive enrollment by offering a program to attract students from outside the Atlanta area by offering them lower tuition that’s comparable to what they would pay at their state’s flagship public university.

“We had struggled a very long time to find a sustainable financial model,” Schall said. “Fourteen or 15 years ago, people would not have imagined that a place like Oglethorpe would have grown the way it did.”

Schall has also been an outspoken advocate for gun control, and Oglethorpe was the first Georgia institution to offer scholarships to so-called Dreamers, students who had been brought to the country illegally as children.

As president of the accrediting agency, Schall plans to be vocal about public funding of higher education and making college accessible, he said.

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“I suspect I won’t be quiet, but I will advocate around a different set of issues,” he said.

The agency’s balancing of its role as both a regulator and a supporter of higher education has drawn critics. After the recent college closures, including the chaotic end of Mount Ida College in Newton, which left many students scrambling to find a new campus, critics questioned whether the accreditor was too cozy with the colleges and failed to look out for students and their families.

The agency has put in place more frequent financial monitoring of the institutions it oversees. The Massachusetts Higher Education Commission has also taken on more of an oversight role.

Brittingham said the accreditors must gain the trust of colleges and universities so that the institutions can be candid about their financial challenges.

Brittingham said there are likely to be more closings and mergers as public and private institutions experiment about how to remain strong. Many are moving to remote and online education because of the pandemic, and the accrediting agency will have a role in ensuring the programs they offer are of high quality, she said.

“These are challenging times, for sure,” Brittingham said. “We’re going to see innovation.”

But after two decades of working with the accreditor, she has learned that leadership matters to a college’s success, she said, and has been struck by the “extraordinary difference the right leader at the right time can make.”

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Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.