The Sad State of Colleges and Universities

The stories on admissions scandals are growing with new forms of “gaining entry” into America’s elite colleges emerging. The earlier stories referred to the side door. A current story involving Harvard can be characterized as literally and figuratively as entering the front door: it seems a family purchased the home of the fencing coach for way over its appraised value. Miraculously (or not), their child was admitted to Harvard and yes, he was on the fencing team. So was his brother. (There is more that was done to insure acceptance but this seems like enough for my purposes here.)

It is in this context that I am struck by three things (actually many more but three for the moment):

  1. Small colleges are falling by the wayside and there is lots of anger and sadness over their actual or imminent or prospective demise. Just look at the debates and hostility and resignations at Hampshire College. I have been trying to help save Southern Vermont College and given the attitudes of many, one would think I was a gravedigger, seeking to exhume the body of an already dead entity. Really? When is death, not to be too existential? I have people who are mad that I am actually trying different salvation approaches. If this were a human being, wouldn’t we want to try a myriad of strategies before we checked into hospice? And, my my, there are tall tales being spun about history, even when there is documentation telling a vastly different story. And surely the most recent four or five years count more than those from a decade or more ago. But, here’s the point: shouldn’t we use every means possible — not just money — to save failing institutions that offer hope and degrees with meaning and employment? Just saying.
  2. We need more legal arrows in our quiver. Hope that’s the right expression. Chapter 11 is currently off limits because of the risk of loss of Title IV funds due to an inserted provision in the HEA act that, in my view, contravenes Section 525 of the Bankruptcy Code (the anti-discrimination provision). There is a group working diligently on exploring these issues and their feasibility within the American College of Bankruptcy. One hurdle: how fast does valuable and quality law change take and can it change fast enough to save some colleges? Ironically, this is a change that should have bi-partisan support. But, in a world today where crossing an aisle is not popular, we have a problem. Just saying.
  3. There are other options out there if people were willing to play ball and yes, take some risks. Some are out of the box ideas — pipelines between charter schools and small colleges; satellite campuses with co-presidencies; elite adoption of small institutions in their communities to provide a myriad of assistance (not just dollars) and the elites might get students who are Pell eligible in the process; restructuring through receivership; investment by companies like 2U and others and the list continues. Worth exploring. How about a save the college summer set of programs? I can imagine many. Just saying.

These are by no means the only options. And surely sooner is better than later in trying to accomplish survival. Delays and quick closures are not positive. Neither is loss or potential loss of accreditation.

Here’s overall what I don’t get: yes, some small colleges will fail. That has always been true. But, many of these small institutions serve students who are NOT well served by large institutions or community colleges. Why not help these institutions survive? And these institutions benefit communities. They benefit the workforce, especially if they have programs in law enforcement and healthcare and psychology (social services). What about adding programs that make sense in today’s economy. Several pop to mind — note I did not say “pot” to mind although there is a future there.

There is no shortage of money flowing to the elites legally and illegally — directly, through side doors, through front doors, through networks, through prep schools, through tutoring and activities and opportunities. OK, I get it. We are not all equality.

But, when that money is illegally given or when institutions get gifts that are really over the top, the absence of dollars for those in need just strikes home. We surely don’t prioritize survival of non-elite small colleges — the ones that need the money and serve the students with the least.

I appreciate that folks with money give to what matters to them. I get that people give upstream. I get that money flows up not down. I am a realist in this sense. But, I hold out hope that we can be bold and creative and innovative — even as doors are closing. It isn’t just about throwing money at the problem. It is about strategic planning for a future that makes sense and is sustainable for the many students who benefit from non-elite small college education.

I will not throw in the towel. And perhaps it is too late for Southern Vermont College, although I still have roads to travel down in the hopes of finding some rocks that need turning over. And, at a minimum, this effort will shed light on how one can save small non-elite colleges if one has enough time and interest and willingness.

I want to comment directly to those who are rowing with me. Thank you. And I want to thank those with enough courage to say: perhaps we shut the door too soon and let’s listen again to ideas. And I want to thank those who believe in the power of the possible, including many graduates. Without a belief in the power of the possible, doors seem to slam too fast and too tight. And, if I have lost friends for trying and for suggesting we need to do more and try more, then I am sad but I am doing the only thing I can: believing in small non-elite colleges and their future. That’s not a sin. That’s not Quixotic even. That’s hopeful — about life, about the future, about our graduates, about educating ALL students.

Ponder with me. Think about doors opening in new places (small colleges) as elite institutions examine how wide their doors have been open without their knowing it.

We might just do this. Just saying.

Written by

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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