The following essay was published in the Boston Business Journal on April 13, 2018.
The catastrophic closure of Mount Ida College in Newton [Massachusetts] has everyone, especially Mount Ida’s students, wondering what happened. Parents, faculty, staff, trustees and donors feel betrayed by the abrupt closure. What is going on?
Moody’s recently warned that the number of college closures and mergers would triple between 2017 and 2018.
Private higher education is especially vulnerable to the four horsemen of the higher education apocalypse: galloping debt, spiraling deficits, unfunded deferred maintenance, and out-of-control tuition discounts. Many of our colleges are borrowing and spending more money than they take in.
We applaud Gov. [Charlie] Baker for calling for an inquiry of the decision by Mount Ida’s trustees. We believe that it is time for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to lead by monitoring institutions that depend so heavily upon federal and state dollars.
Here are some steps to take:
Insure colleges and universities against catastrophic closure. Colleges are businesses with increasingly limited lifespans. By pooling risk among institutions, students and citizens will be protected from the often unforeseen consequences of catastrophic closure. After the College of Saint Catharine in Bardstown, Kentucky, closed in 2016, the bondholders hired a litigation firm. They sued any former student who held a balance, from unpaid tuition to a parking ticket. The judge added a kicker, adding 12 percent interest to those unpaid balances over the course of 10 years. The results of that have been disastrous.
Use a valid stress test to monitor the fiscal health of colleges and universities. The U.S. Department of Education issues a list of colleges and universities that failed to maintain stable financial composite scores annually. Financial Responsibility Composite Scores determine a college or university’s financial health and qualify them to receive federal aid under Title IV. Based upon a now outdated method of ratio analysis once used to predict corporate bankruptcies, these composite scores are unreliable, outdated and prone to manipulation.
In August 2017, the General Accountability Office issued a report entitled “Higher Education: Education Should Address Oversight and Communication Gaps in Its Monitoring of the Financial Condition of Schools.” The GAO warned USDE that composite scores are famously unreliable barometers of stability that are sometimes “gamed” by unscrupulous institutions.
Find ways to address the coming tsunami of unfunded deferred maintenance. The quality of facilities is often ignored when budget decisions are made. Unless an institution is using a “plus 10” (+10 percent of capitalization) formula to fund ongoing maintenance of buildings and grounds, most colleges and universities have unfunded maintenance costs totaling at least $100 per gross square foot of constructed space. Some smaller institutions are carrying deferred maintenance of $50 million or more, causing students at Brooklyn College, for example, to rebel at their condition of their facilities.
Find innovative ways to give tuition-dependent colleges and universities access to capital markets. Public bonds, private bonds, and hybrid financial instruments now make it possible to repurpose crumbling buildings. Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) enable colleges and universities to fund building projects. Some colleges and universities, like Marygrove College in Detroit, have turned their buildings and grounds over to land conservancies. Still other institutions have used equity or sale/leaseback agreements, which exchange a deed or title for uncapped portions of a property’s fair market value.
Brian Mitchell is a principal in Academic Innovators and past president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College. He is co-author, with W. Joseph King, of How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers. Gerard O’Sullivan is a former provost and dean, CEO of Corvus Education LLC, and Visiting Professor of Higher Education at Immaculata University.