Last spring former NFL Hall of Fame player and Super Bowl champion coach Mike Ditka was a featured speaker at a dinner to try to save a college that was closing. It was not his alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, but St. Joseph’s College (IN) where the Chicago Bears held training camp from 1944 through 1974. If you’re old enough to remember the movie Brian’s Song, you saw the campus in the movie. But while Ditka played and coached on the last two Bears teams to win championships in 1963 and 1986, and brought the franchise respect, even he could not save this school.
Which colleges are likely to close?
Colleges close or merge with other colleges because they have neither the enrollment nor the revenue to sustain operations. The private colleges most likely to close are regional—they draw their students from less than a half-day’s drive from campus—their enrollments typically below 1,000 undergraduates. Public colleges are more likely to be consolidated as enrollments decline—two or more schools join to become one—than closed. This has a less devastating impact, but many jobs and academic programs are lost.
Why one college closed: a story of Upsala College in New Jersey
I worked as an urban economic development professional in Newark, New Jersey for eight years. The city’s two undergraduate four-year colleges, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and Rutgers University-Newark are public. Their success depends in part on the value that city government places on these schools as achievable institutions for its high school graduates, and their ability to help them find jobs.
But the more likely first stop on a Newarkers journey to college is likely to start at Essex County College with the hopes of transferring into NJIT or Rutgers after a year. Sadly, the number of Newark residents enrolled at the community college has dropped from nearly 4,500 in the Fall of 2015 to just over 3,000 in the Fall of 2018. Not all of these people were pursuing a degree, or intended to transfer to a four-year school. But a decline in community college enrollments is likely to have an impact on the smaller private colleges close by. This effect has repeated itself across the country.
NJIT and Rutgers have always tried to help high school students in Newark and neighboring towns. But these schools have always been able beyond them to attract students and they offer advanced degrees. NJIT is a polytechnic university with many high-demand majors as well as a solid honors college. Rutgers offers many dual degree programs in the liberal arts and in business. Students who qualify for the Pell Grant and the New Jersey Tuition Assistance Grant pay no tuition to attend Rutgers in Newark. It’s really tough for a small private college to match these opportunities, and one failed to do so.
A small school close to Newark, Upsala College, closed 23 years ago. Upsala’s problems were nearly 30 years in the making. As economic conditions in Newark and East Orange declined, the college recruited students within the community more aggressively with scholarships, while its enrollment declined from 1,600 in 1969 to 435 at the end. Upsala did not have the resources to maintain its accreditation, let alone improve its academic offerings, campus setting or student affairs programs. Much of college’s campus got a “second life” as East Orange Campus High School.
I think about Upsala’s downfall—it happened while I was pursuing my MBA—and wonder how other small colleges will survive when economies that surround them are weak, their alumni bases are too small, and their connections too few.
Now, more than ever, parents want to feel more secure about their investment in their child’s college education. Students want to know that a job or the next educational opportunity will be waiting for them if they work hard, and that their alma mater will be there for them for life. Colleges, large or small, public or private, have to be responsive to all three. Otherwise they may suffer the same fate as Upsala.