Facing mounting financial pressure and plunging enrollment, Wheelock College in the Fenway has put its president’s house on the market, is trying to sell one of its dormitories, and is reevaluating its programs, including perhaps eliminating undergraduate degrees altogether in the future.
The school will recruit a freshman undergraduate class for 2018, but plans for 2019 are on hold as Wheelock charts its new direction.
The school’s leadership is reviewing its options and expects to make a decision about its future in the next two to three months, said Adrian K. Haugabrook, the vice president for student success and engagement.
The nearly 130-year-old private college is taking drastic steps as it struggles to remain relevant and survive in an environment that has grown increasingly competitive for small, liberal arts schools across the country.
Wheelock has to “think differently of our financial model,” said Haugabrook. “We are trying to carve a niche in a very competitive marketplace. We have to think what is the appropriate mix as it relates to the future.”
For Wheelock, the current financial challenges follow several years of controversies, including a leadership shakeup, federal discrimination complaints from two Jewish faculty members, and greater scrutiny from academic accreditors.
Last year, the 1,053-student campus brought in David J. Chard, a former dean of the education school at Southern Methodist University in Texas, to replace Wheelock’s longtime leader Jackie Jenkins Scott, who had helmed the school for 12 years.
Chard was unavailable to comment on Tuesday. College officials said he was visiting the school’s Singapore campus, where Wheelock offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology.
The sale of the buildings and the restructuring of Wheelock’s degree programs would be the most significant changes to the school under Chard.
The challenges he faces in righting Wheelock are significant.
Wheelock, which specializes in early childhood education and social work, has seen its freshman applications and enrollment decline. In 2014, the school accepted its largest freshman undergraduate class of 265 students. This year, Wheelock is hoping to enroll 150 freshmen.
The school’s graduate enrollment is also sliding. It enrolls about 330 graduate students and expects to admit about 150 students this fall, Haugabrook said.
Meanwhile, Wheelock saw its operating expenses outpace revenue by $2.6 million in 2016 and $2.5 million in 2015.
Its endowment has also been shrinking, from $53.9 million in 2015 to $50 million in 2016, according to its financial statements.
It’s unclear how much the sale of the buildings and the restructuring of programs will save the school.
The president’s house, a stately, five-bedroom on Kent Street in Brookline that boasts “if you like to entertain, this is the home for you!” is listed at $3.1 million. The school is also looking to sell its Colchester House in Brookline, a former mansion that was converted to house up to 30 students.
The college is likely to sell the dormitory to a developer and is still assessing the property’s value, said Anne Marie Martorana, Wheelock’s vice president for finance and operations.
But Wheelock no longer needs the 675 beds it currently has for students, Martorana said.
Where Chard, the president, will live after the sale remains uncertain. But Wheelock will honor its commitment to provide housing, Martorana said.
The building sales and financial struggles at Wheelock have caused uncertainty among staff and faculty as concerns grow that the school may lay off employees.
But Wheelock’s financial predicament is far from an outlier.
Almost one in three colleges with enrollment under 3,000 students had operating deficits in 2016. That’s up from 20 percent of small schools in 2013, according to a report this week from Moody’s Investors Services, the credit rating agency.
Considering the high cost of education and the large loans they must take out to get a degree, students are increasingly selective about what schools they attend, said Pranav Sharma, an analyst with Moody’s.
At Wheelock, annual tuition for the upcoming school year is about $35,000, and with room, board, and fees, the costs can climb to over $50,000. About 80 percent of undergraduates take out loans to attend, according to federal education statistics.
“Students are much more sensitive to whether they’ll get jobs and whether they’re getting a value,” Sharma said. “There’s more pressure on schools to demonstrate that your degree will be valuable and they’ll not be unemployed.”
Many of these small schools that rely on student tuition to pay their bills have focused on particular areas of study for decades and can’t quickly pivot to offer classes that students want to take, he said.
They also have less generous endowments to help them weather these shifts.
As a result, some colleges have closed, others have merged or partnered with neighbors, and several have turned to online education to attract more students.
The changing financial outlook for these small colleges has also forced many of them to focus on their expenses and aggressively slash programs that aren’t making them money, even if they’ve been around for decades, Sharma said.
“Colleges are much more businesslike,” he said.