Nearly 200 US colleges could run out of money in the next decade and be forced to close, according to study by a Massachusetts startup.
But you won’t be able to find out which ones.
A concerted and aggressive effort by colleges and their trade organization this past week, including the threat of legal action, blocked the release of the report, and offers a window into how difficult it can be to evaluate the financial health of higher education institutions, even as many close and merge.
“This is not the reaction we were expecting,” said Nick Ducoff, the cofounder of Edmit and a former Northeastern University vice president. The company, which launched in 2017 and offers college advising services, has increasingly fielded questions from parents about whether the colleges they are considering will be around by the time their children graduate. It wanted to provide consumers with financial projections, based on an analysis of publicly available data, Ducoff said.
Edmit had planned this month to publicly release its projections of financially struggling colleges and how long they could survive if current revenue and spending patterns held. The company had compiled the data with a group of Brandeis University finance graduate students and was going to make it available on an open-source platform and with a story published in Inside Higher Ed, a trade publication.
But several colleges objected. Their lobbying group, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, questioned the criteria used to develop the list of troubled schools. And Utica College in upstate New York sent a legal notice threatening to sue if the report was published.
Edmit took down the online page where it planned to release the data. Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday also reported on backlash it received from universities and the trade group to oppose the publication.
Ducoff said Edmit pulled the report because it is still a new company and was concerned about waging a prolonged legal battle.
Colleges and their advocates said they support transparency but argue that Edmit’s report would have been unfair to many institutions because the company looked at only a few criteria to measure problems and some of the data were two years old. Edmit’s model considered endowment returns, faculty and staff compensation costs, tuition costs, and discounts on tuition that colleges give students to lure them to campus. Colleges report this data in various forms to the federal government and in their tax filings.
But plenty of other factors that can influence the viability of a campus, including its leadership and turnaround efforts, weren’t considered by Edmit, said Pete Boyle, vice president of public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Utica College said it went the legal route because officials there had limited information about the report and the data Edmit used to compile its list. The college has been doing well in the past three years and was concerned that some of the information was too old and no longer relevant, said Kelly Adams, a Utica spokesperson.
“We had very limited visibility into the content of the study and were concerned that it used very incomplete or no data,” Adams said. “To be clear, we believe in transparency about financial sustainability and have been very transparent with our own financial story.”
Being on the list could have been a death knell for many institutions, spooking students from enrolling and accelerating their financial woes, said Karen Gross, an author and crisis management consultant who was president of Southern Vermont College from 2006 to 2014. The college closed this year.
“A timetable for their failure is simultaneously disruptive, discouraging, disappointing, and highly indefensible,” Gross said. “Once you do that, it’s game over for these colleges.”
Gross said colleges should be more transparent with faculty and students about their finances and efforts to transform campuses, but such a list offers an incomplete and inaccurate picture.
Colleges have pushed back against additional federal or state oversight. But the disruptive closure of Mount Ida College in Newton in 2018, and the growing pace of school mergers and shutdowns, spurred Massachusetts lawmakers and Governor Charlie Baker to pass legislation requiring more state supervision of colleges. The new law, signed by Baker last week, requires higher education institutions to post their financial information annually on their websites, undergo regular financial screenings for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, and develop contingency plans if they are at risk of closing.
It is unclear whether state higher education officials or the regional accrediting agency, whose membership includes New England colleges, will conduct the reviews. Area colleges have expressed concern that if the state did the screenings, that sensitive financial information would eventually leak to the public.
Still, Massachusetts’ rules are rare, said Amy Laitinen, the director for higher education policy at the New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and the coauthor of a new report on the lack of transparency around colleges and universities and their outcomes for students.
State and federal authorities and accrediting agencies have been reluctant to set standards and take action against institutions that may not be serving students well or be financially healthy, she said.
The case with Edmit illustrates some of the problems that consumers have in getting information about colleges, Laitinen said.
“Some of the schools still exist because students don’t have good information,” she said.
After Inside Higher Ed published its article on the blowback from colleges about Edmit’s report, Ducoff said he received e-mails from other college presidents and foundations that were interested in understanding the data.
“We are very encouraged that this data will see the light of day,” Ducoff said.