For Madeline McClain, Mount Ida College was the perfect school.
The idea of attending a big university made her anxious: The Newton college had only 1,600 students. She had long wanted to be a vet, and Mount Ida’s veterinary technology program was stellar. And officials at Mount Ida seemed to love her, showering her with praise for her excellent grades and leadership.
Best of all, they gave her scholarships worth $37,500 per year to offset her education’s $49,000 annual cost — way more than the other seven colleges that accepted her had offered. To her single mother, Lissa, who had not gone to college herself, that felt like the jackpot.
Of course Madeline said yes.
By now, you know what happened next. On April 6, four days after she paid her deposit, Mount Ida College announced that it was closing, and that the University of Massachusetts Amherst would buy up its property — taking students, faculty, and state officials completely by surprise. Even now, the McClains say, they have not received official notice of the closing. Lissa discovered something had gone wrong via Facebook on April 5, when the school canceled a visit to Mount Ida she and her daughter were supposed to take April 7. Later that day, an official at the school told her, off the record, that Madeline should find another college, she said.
A Mount Ida spokesperson said, “Closing the college for acquisition is certainly not the way anyone wished to write Mount Ida’s last chapter, and it grieves us.”
But spend a little time talking to Madeline and her mother, and it’s hard to see what the college did here as anything other than a scam. Unless they are breathtakingly incompetent, Mount Ida officials had to have known for months how close to collapse the school was. Yet, until the very last minute, they went on as if they were flush: Staff got new contracts, incoming freshmen were courted, guides led campus tours.
“We feel deceived,” Lissa said. “We feel like we were conned into believing this was a great choice.”
We’re used to hearing these kinds of stories about for-profit colleges that take money from vulnerable students and make big, empty promises about lucrative new careers. But what happened at this small liberal arts college isn’t so different from what a DeVry or Trump University would do: Mount Ida made promises to incoming freshmen like Madeline that officials there knew, or should have known, they very likely couldn’t keep.
How the heck did this happen? Where was Mount Ida’s Board of Trustees in all of this? They’re supposed to ensure college officials make sound decisions, and yet somehow, the school crashed into a financial wall and consented to a distress sale. No way should they have let this drag on until it was too late for faculty to find other jobs for September and for many students to find other suitable schools.
Why doesn’t the state’s Board of Higher Education — which found out about the school’s woes in the newspaper, for heaven’s sake — have the power and resources to keep a closer eye on small private colleges? The Legislature must give the board ways to look behind the sunny talk from presidents like Mount Ida’s Barry Brown.
And how is it that UMass, which has just scored a sweet deal, still isn’t bending over backward to offer stranded students clear and practical ways to complete studies they began at their ailing school in Newton?
It’s time for everybody to step up here. Small colleges are increasingly vulnerable to closure as the population of 18-year-olds shrinks. This could keep happening.
Madeline McClain is going to be OK. Her second-choice school renewed its offer. But there will be no vet tech studies there, and she’ll pay $11,000 more. Still, she and her mother consider themselves lucky, compared to families whose kids have nowhere else to go or no way to pay for it.
The 18-year-old has had a schooling in cynicism no one her age should endure.
“I have very little trust for any school at this point,” she said. “I feel like college is more a game to make money for other people, instead of giving an education to me.”
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham