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Has inequality doomed small, private colleges?

In at least one way, the insular world of private colleges and universities in Massachusetts is like the rest of society: The divide between the weakest and the strongest keeps on widening.

As schools compete ferociously for applicants and policy makers fret about student debt burdens, it’s a stressful time to be running a small, low-key private institution. Montserrat College of Art, a 380-student school in Beverly, hoped to be absorbed into Salem State University, but merger talks recently halted because the numbers didn’t work out. Marian Court College, a small Catholic college in Swampscott whose finances looked only moderately troubled, said in June it would close. The school became a key exhibit in a Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “How Can You Tell When a College Is Circling the Drain?


To all the other pressures, let’s add one more. When a school is preoccupied with simply staying alive, it’s bound to fall further behind as the state of the art evolves, and as stronger institutions charge bravely forward.

At a media event Tuesday, officials from Harvard, MIT, and their online-education joint venture edX recounted both the benefits and the logistical demands of turning traditional university classes into multimedia learning experiences for people all around the world.

There are niggling little problems that an outsider might never anticipate. At one point, Harvard’s copyright adviser Kyle Courtney recounted, a record company objected to the brief snippets of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” included in an online course about — ironically — copyright law. Harvard, fortunately, had people who knew how to handle the issue.

Meanwhile, Harvard and MIT are amassing a vast quantity of helpful data from usage patterns and the click trail that students leave behind. Sheryl Barnes, from MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, said the institute revamped an on-campus computer-science course after seeing how students interacted with the online version. If an exam question is flawed, the problem comes through clearly in an online course with thousands of students.


Smaller, financially strapped schools can’t make such fine adjustments. The 130-person staff at edX — which built the web platform on which online course materials from Harvard, MIT, and other member schools are distributed — dwarfs the faculty of a small college like Montserrat College of Art. (At Harvard alone, an additional 50 people work for the unit that produces the actual courses.)

As a specialty institution, Montserrat doesn’t compete directly with the biggest names in higher ed, any more than a local credit union competes with Goldman Sachs. And the hands-on studios Montserrat offers can’t easily be replicated online.

Still, every college needs to make investments in the future. In an interview, Montserrat president Stephen Immerman — a former MIT administrator — noted that artists and graphic designers produce enormous electronic files, and the high-end computers and software necessary to manipulate them becomes obsolete quickly. He says his school can maintain its current niche “for some time, but not at the level [needed] to continue to grow the institution.”

Under the reigning theory of disruption, the leading players in an industry watch like lumbering dinosaurs as cheaper, scrappier competitors take over a progressively larger chunks of the market; someday, the availability of free online engineering courses might devalue an MIT degree.

But there’s an alternate theory in which today’s strongest brands squeeze everyone else out. Should consumers take a liking to big productions featuring academia’s greatest stars, schools like Harvard and MIT can extend their dominance well into the future.


If you live in the Boston area, whose economy relies heavily on higher ed, it’s a relief to know that the region’s top universities mean to lead the revolution rather than be swept aside by it. Talk to the folks at edX, and the possibilities seem endless: A flowering of online courses with high production values might not just disrupt higher ed, but also create a new entertainment medium. Instead of binge-watching “Game of Thrones,” people might ward off ennui by taking Harvard’s online course about the science of cooking.

Harder to envision is how smaller institutions keep up if they lack strong brands, deep pockets, or access to more public funds.

Colleges don’t give up easily, and schools far more troubled than Montserrat have shown great perseverance. “We fully intend to fight the good fight,” Immerman said. His counterparts at other small private schools should be thinking: Let’s hope.

They should also be thinking: Yikes.

Dante Ramos can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.


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