The closure of Mount Ida College was unfortunate and terrible for all those involved. But the student disarray and faculty and staff job losses that ensued are not the norm for small colleges, and certainly not the lens through which the public should view these institutions.
Regulators are reacting to Mount Ida’s closure by rushing to determine rules for colleges facing challenges in Massachusetts. The risk of publicly identifying an institution on a “watch list” will preclude any chance of a turnaround and potentially cause undue harm to institutions that are working hard to succeed. Instead of looking at that single incident as the template for the future of small colleges, it is much more instructive to look at the successes of institutions like Simmons and Regis – two colleges that fought through difficult times to emerge as healthy and vibrant institutions. In fact, these institutions are stronger today than ever before.
Eleven years ago, Simmons was facing difficult times. There was a structural deficit, with three years of financial losses to address, a partially finished academic building, and a banker – Lehman Brothers – headed for bankruptcy. A “snapshot” of that institution would have sent parents, students, and benefactors scurrying.
But instead of closing the school, Simmons’ leadership went to work, slashing the budget and making deep and painful layoffs, while setting prudent budget practices, including mandating a minimum annual surplus of $1 million and seeking tuition revenue diversification. Stabilization allowed innovation. Simmons partnered with a world-class education company, 2U, to become an early adopter of high-quality online education in 2014. Currently, 29 percent of Simmons’ tuition revenue comes from online graduate programs, and its graduate schools’ enrollment now doubles undergraduate enrollment.
Today, robust revenues from Simmons’ online programming provide flexibility to support ongoing strategic initiatives and prudent financial decision-making, a required way of life for a tuition-dependent, modestly endowed institution.
Regis, too, faced challenging times 20 years ago, but the university made hard choices through budget and program cuts, and leadership understood that a successful turnaround required a bold growth strategy. The Regis administration and board of trustees moved quickly to adapt the university to the needs of the changing job market, becoming a leader in health sciences and nursing, and expanding graduate programs to keep classrooms full during nights, weekends. and summers. Regis also developed a robust online program that now serves more than a thousand students worldwide.
Diversifying revenues, growing enrollment with new degrees and programs, and deciding to become coeducational has paved the way for Regis’s long-term financial growth. University faculty are adept at both the academic core of education and the career development of students, many of whom are first in their families to attend college.
Today, Regis meets the modern workforce needs of our Commonwealth — for example, awarding degrees to 500 nurses every year. In fact, when Mount Ida closed, Regis stepped in not only to accept transfer students, but also take over the entire dental hygiene program, including faculty and staff. Thanks to Regis’s significant investment, the students in the program will soon learn in a new cutting-edge dental clinic in Waltham.
At Regis and Simmons, access and social justice are at the heart of the mission. Regis offers bachelor’s degrees to provide easily accessible opportunities to students in the city of Lawrence. For more than a decade, Regis has been educating nurses in Haiti, significantly contributing to the country’s health care needs. As the only women’s college in Boston, Simmons provides 16 full scholarships to low-income city residents and continues to feed the local workforce with skilled nurses, social workers, and library scientists ready to lead.
Across this state, more students are educated at private colleges than publics – and choose small colleges because they love the close-knit atmosphere, where faculty are deeply invested in students’ personal and professional growth. Small colleges are the centers of their communities. Students, faculty, and staff help keep Main Streets alive. Students give invaluable volunteer hours at local schools and nonprofits. College campuses provide sports, music, movies, and dance, as well as libraries and playing fields. They are more than an economic engine for this state; they are a fundamental component of our state’s identity.
Are there any regulations acceptable to college presidents? Of course. We are already fully engaged and providing important feedback on the process. A subset of finance leaders from area colleges and universities are helping policy makers to better understand a range of metrics and data that will assist in the early detection of financially fragile institutions and help both the schools and students avoid a rushed, crisis situation.
Given the long history of innovation among Massachusetts colleges and universities, we need support for our efforts, not an anchor to weigh them down. In the well-meaning effort to protect students and their families, rushing the implementation of regulations may inadvertently hurt them by damaging the small colleges that serve them so well.
Helen G. Drinan is president of Simmons University. Antoinette M. Hays is president of Regis College.