Lasell University in Newton is cutting degree offerings in the liberal arts and laying off faculty, in the latest sign of financial trouble for small, private colleges in New England.
Lasell, which went coed in 1998, confirmed this week that it will eliminate majors in global studies, sociology, English, history, and fitness management. All current students will be able to finish their degree programs before the majors wind down, the college said.
Four faculty members have been informed their contracts will not be renewed for the 2024-25 school year, and several open faculty positions will not be refilled, former president Michael Alexander said in a June 28 email to the university community. An additional 12 staff positions have been eliminated.
“These decisions are the most difficult that the Board of Trustees and I ever have to make, because they affect our valued colleagues and friends,” Alexander, retired recently after leading the school for 16 years, wrote in the email. “Yet, they are essential to prepare us for the demographic changes we know are coming, to position us for sustained growth, and to protect Lasell’s long-term financial future.”
The college’s new president, Eric Turner, who started July 1, declined to disclose the size of the budget deficit for fiscal year 2023, adding that the university’s audited financial report is not yet complete. Internal documents obtained by the Globe show the college expected a $12 million budget deficit in the fiscal year ending in June.
Dozens of small private colleges across the region are struggling as the pool of college-aged students continues to fall and more young people opt to enter the workforce rather than pursue a degree. Colleges with small endowments are among the most likely to be affected because they depend on tuition as a primary source of revenue. Lasell’s endowment was $46 million at the end of fiscal 2022.
More than 20 colleges in Massachusetts have closed or merged with other institutions since 2014, according to the state Department of Higher Education.
The Globe reported last month that Simmons University in Boston is considering cutting several undergraduate departments in the liberal arts in response to financial challenges and declining graduate enrollment.
At Lasell, undergraduate enrollment fell 15.4 percent between fall 2011 and fall 2021, according to the US Department of Education. The college, which opened in 1851 as the Auburndale Female Seminary and is best known today for its fashion program, enrolled 1,236 undergraduate students and 392 graduate students in fall 2022.
Like many colleges, Lasell added employees in recent years to support students’ growing needs, including mental health challenges. Now, Turner, who has been at the college for 32 years, said the staffing cuts are necessary to reflect a smaller student body.
Eliminating areas of study with low enrollment is also necessary to achieve financial stability, Turner said.
“Those are majors that have been low enrolled majors for some time,” he said, adding that “the marketplace” decided to cut the majors, not the university.
Lasell will continue to offer courses in the eliminated areas, including English, history, and sociology, because they are still requirements for other programs, Turner said.
In addition to cutting costs, Lasell is considering ways to increase revenue, including adding an engineering major, partnering with historically Black colleges on exchange programs, and renting out some of the Victorian houses on its campus to young professionals seeking housing near Boston, Turner said.
Already, Lasell benefits financially from a senior living community on its campus called Lasell Village. The roughly 225 residents are required to enroll in at least 450 hours of courses and other learning opportunities, including mentoring or tutoring students.
“Our plans are going to continue to grow and evolve, and that’s what has allowed us to be successful to this point,” Turner said. “We’re going to manage this institution as best as we possibly can. [The college is] 172 years old. That doesn’t happen by accident.”
Still, several students pursuing degrees in the humanities expressed disappointment with the decision to end several degree programs.
Evie Crudele, a rising junior studying history, said in an interview she was surprised to learn her major was being cut when she checked her degree requirements online during the spring semester. The page informed her that the history degree was no longer being offered to new students. The university sent an email later in April confirming the news, she said.
“History let me finally realize that I can do everything I love,” she said. “The professors have been incredible. They have really allowed me to learn and be passionate.”
Julia Laplante, a rising senior majoring in English, said that the decision to cut humanities majors sends the message that university leaders “don’t believe in [us] or what [we’re] studying.”
Laplante added that she fears the university is “turning into a business,” by focusing on the academic departments that bring in revenue.
While disappointed, Savanah Brooks, a rising sophomore studying sociology and legal studies, said she understands that Lasell needs to make difficult decisions.
“Lasell had a legitimate reason to do away with the programs,” she said. “It’s upsetting. but they have to do what’s best for them and they can’t provide majors if only a few students are in them.”