When Mount Ida College announced last spring that it was shutting down, Newbury College in Brookline encouraged students to transfer to Newbury, assuring at least one anxious family that the college was in no financial peril itself.
Now Newbury is set to close too — leaving students devastated, none more than those who had recently arrived from Mount Ida and now feel twice betrayed.
Recruiting from Mount Ida was just one of the last-ditch measures that Newbury explored this year in its attempt to stay open. It also sold campus buildings and pursued a real estate deal with a for-profit education company based in the United Kingdom.
In the end, college officials announced last Friday that they would cease operations after the spring 2019 semester — the latest small, private college to succumb to financial pressure at a time when many are struggling.
“It’s just crazy. You really don’t expect this to happen when you go looking at colleges,” said Barbara Marshall, whose daughter, Samantha, attended Mount Ida before enrolling at Newbury.
Samantha Marshall reached out to Newbury before deciding to transfer there, asking specifically about the school’s finances and receiving an assurance that all was well.
“The short answer is that Newbury is doing well financially and there is no plan of merger or closure anytime soon,” a Newbury admissions office employee wrote in an April e-mail provided to The Boston Globe. “Newbury carries almost no debt at all, which allows us to operate comfortably even though we are a smaller school.”
On Monday, Joseph L. Chillo, the Newbury College president, acknowledged the letter was untrue.
“I apologize and take full responsibility for the correspondence Newbury College had with this Mount Ida student, and I feel terrible this student is once again experiencing the heartbreak that comes with two college closures in one year,” Chillo said in a statement Monday.
“While the e-mail mischaracterized Newbury College’s financial situation, it was written by someone who would not have been briefed on the challenges we were facing at the time,” he said.
He said that last spring, the admissions office was told only that the school was seeing a record numbers of inquiries, applications, and acceptances. It was told the school, which has about 700 students, was seeing a 30 percent increase in deposits and greater demand for housing.
But Chillo told the Globe in March that the school was trying to close a 10 percent budget shortfall amid declining enrollment. And the school’s publicly available financial statements show it ran a $2.8 million deficit last year. The school was placed on probation by accreditors for financial reasons in August, which it announced at the time.
Meanwhile, the deal with the UK-based education company, Global University Systems, appears to have fallen through after the state attorney general’s office asked questions.
Maura Healey’s office oversees charitable institutions, which include nonprofit colleges, to ensure they act consistently with their charitable missions and as stewards of their charitable assets. In this case, Healey’s office asked questions of the company and was later told the company was no longer pursuing the transaction.
“It is completely understandable that schools facing serious financial challenges would explore all options,” said a statement from the office’s spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore.
Healey’s office has praised the up-front way this school is approaching its closure, unlike the chaotic shutdown of Mount Ida, which had no plan for where students would finish their degrees.
Chillo said Newbury had a memorandum of understanding with Global University Systems but declined to cite the reason it fell apart.
He said Newbury wanted to partner with that company, which operates schools around the world, because “it is a well-established, international education provider that had already experienced success in other parts of the world.”
“Not only would partnering with Global have addressed our accreditor’s concerns regarding the college’s financial stability, it would have allowed Newbury College’s board of trustees and administration to retain their authority over the college, remain at our current location, maintain our rigorous academic standards, leave us debt-free, create the largest endowment in the college’s history, and put the interest of our students first,” the statement said.
Newbury College costs about $35,000 per year in tuition plus another $15,000 for room and board. The average student pays $25,000 after financial aid. The liberal arts college serves a population that is two-thirds low-income and more than half students of color. The six-year graduation rate is 39 percent and 32 percent of students transfer elsewhere, federal data show.
Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accrediting agency, said Chillo worked hard on behalf of the school and stayed in touch with accreditors throughout.
She said the commission had not seen the final deal with the for-profit company but added ultimately it would have required approval from the agency.
Brittingham said unfortunately she expects to see this situation again. The higher education landscape is increasingly dotted with small colleges that can no longer make ends meet, amid a declining population of college-age students and tuitions that have become prohibitively expensive.
“Alas, I think there will be more to come,” she said.
In the meantime, students and professors at Newbury are working through their grief.
For Barbara Marshall’s daughter, this is the third college in three semesters. She first attended the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, but decided it was too far from home, eventually transferring to Mount Ida and then Newbury. She wants to be an interior designer.
Marshall’s older daughter also attended Mount Ida and has transferred to the State University of New York campus in Canton, which is significantly more expensive, she said.
Marshall said Mount Ida gave her younger daughter about $20,000 per year in scholarships, and Newbury matched that. She was saving money by living at home, so Newbury was going to cost her about $10,000 per year, which she was paying for with loans, her mother said.
She said she found it particularly disheartening that Newbury notified students after they had returned home for break. The day before the school announced its closure last week, her daughter had danced around their living room, elated by the four A’s and a B she received this semester at Newbury. “It’s not quite as bad as Mount Ida, but there’s definitely some deception going on here,” she said.