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College closure rules called ‘watershed moment’

State higher education officials on Friday approved a new set of regulations that will govern how they screen colleges and universities for financial risks and potential closures.

Education Secretary James Peyser said the Board of Higher Education’s vote marked a “watershed moment.”

“On the one hand, it’s an incremental shift,” Peyser said. “On the other hand, it’s really a major change in the nature of our relationship as a board and as a state in terms of our responsibility for ensuring the health of our higher education system writ large, not just the public system.”

The sudden closure of Mount Ida College in 2018 drew attention to the challenges faced by small, private colleges grappling with enrollment declines and other demographic trends and sparked calls to protect current and prospective students from being blindsided by a closure.

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Board of Higher Education Chairman Chris Gabrieli said Friday’s vote was the latest step in a “process to go from, frankly, surprise, shock and disappointment in an event to some approach that we think is the appropriate approach.”

Governor Charlie Baker in November signed a law requiring colleges and universities in Massachusetts to immediately notify the Board of Higher Education of any financial situation that’s likely to result in its closure or an inability to fulfill obligations to current or admitted students. Schools facing a closure risk would need to submit a contingency plan, including measures for providing advance notice to students and staff.

The law also tasked the board with developing an annual screening process to assess the financial condition of every college and university and requires that the schools post their financial reports online annually.

The regulations approved Friday lay out the screening process and permit the the board to assess and monitor the institutions deemed at risk of closure, as well as to require closure planning and public notification in the event of imminent closure.

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They apply to all 95 Massachusetts-based private higher education institutions authorized to grant degrees, according to Dena Papanikolaou, the Department of Higher Education’s general counsel.

Papanikolaou said department staff will continue working with the regional accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education, to finalize a memorandum of understanding for the commission to conduct the annual screenings and share information with the department. The goal, she said, is to present the board any necessary implementation policies at its next meeting in February and receive the first dataset from the commission in March.