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Baker aims to protect students from future college closures

Governor Charlie Baker has joined officials who are seeking new regulations to protect students from sudden college closures, such as the closure that occurred at Mount Ida College in Newton.
Governor Charlie Baker has joined officials who are seeking new regulations to protect students from sudden college closures, such as the closure that occurred at Mount Ida College in Newton.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Governor Charlie Baker is proposing new regulations that aim to protect students from the chaos caused earlier this year by the abrupt closure of Mount Ida College.

The governor included language in a larger spending bill that would require at-risk schools to submit contingency closure plans to the state, and also to notify students when they are accepted if a school is at significant risk of closing.

Higher education experts predict an increasing number of small colleges will close in coming years, as the number of high school graduates dwindles. In addition, students are increasingly unable to pay the often high price of tuition at many private schools.

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Baker is the latest of numerous state officials to call for more regulatory oversight in the wake of the Mount Ida controversy. Attorney General Maura Healey, the state Board of Higher Education, and a state Senate oversight committee have also made similar proposals.

The Newton college, which specialized in programs in veterinary technology and funeral home management, announced its closure publicly without first notifying state regulators or college accreditors, as required. It is now the subject of an investigation by the attorney general into whether its president and trustees acted in students’ best interest.

Because the school closed without a contingency plan, students were forced to find their own way to finish their degrees elsewhere. The University of Massachusetts Amherst announced plans to purchase the Mount Ida campus, and UMass Dartmouth agreed to accept all students in good academic standing, though it does not offer all the specialized degree programs that Mount Ida did.

Mount Ida had also just accepted a new class of students who had to find last-minute alternatives. And professors were laid off just weeks before the end of the school year, making it difficult for them to find new jobs.

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Baker’s proposal would make two changes. First, it would require any degree-granting school at risk of “imminent closure” to notify the Board of Higher Education and prepare to submit a contingency closure plan that includes arrangements for students to transfer and for their records to be preserved.

Second, Baker proposed that colleges, public and private, be required to notify students upon their acceptance if the school has any risks or liabilities to its short-term financial viability that could jeopardize its ability to allow them to graduate.

“Governor Baker is concerned about the manner in which the adults at Mt. Ida failed to plan and appropriately communicate with their students and faculty about the school’s financial situation,” said Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw.

The governor’s proposal does not include penalties for schools that do not follow these rules, but those could be created in subsequent regulations if the proposal becomes law.

Healey, whose office helped many Mount Ida students find places to complete their degrees, has called for similar changes. Her office on Monday applauded Baker’s call for more oversight of schools.

“We’re pleased that the Baker administration is supporting our proposal to protect students and ensure that schools have contingency plans in the event of a closure,” said Emalie Gainey, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.

Current state law says that if a college knows it may close, or if it is planning to merge, it should notify the Board of Higher Education as far as possible in advance of the closure or merger. Baker’s proposal would be broader in scope, likely requiring more schools to submit such contingency plans.

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For several years the Department of Higher Education has had a form that schools are asked to use to notify the department of closure plans. Mount Ida did not notify the board nor did it submit the form before announcing it would close. Current law does not include any penalties for not notifying the department.

In addition, a working group of the state Board of Higher Education has begun to meet to also recommend more state oversight of schools, public and private. That group is drafting a report it hopes will be complete by the end of the year.

Chris Gabrieli, the chairman of the Board of Higher Education and leader of the working group, said he welcomes officials’ interest in the topic. He said the legislative changes will likely be broad and his group’s recommendations very specific.

“A lot of our work is going to be fine brush strokes, not broad brush strokes,” he said.

The working group has heard testimony from the Association of Independent Colleges & Universities in Massachusetts, a trade group that represents private colleges, which could face a slew of new paperwork if these proposals become law. That group’s president, Richard Doherty, did not return a call for comment on Monday.

Earlier this month, a Senate committee that held a hearing after the closure also issued a set of recommendations that included similar regulatory changes.

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Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.