Along with students and alumni, the citizens of Rensselaer, Indiana, expressed shock last week when St. Joseph’s College announced that it would close at the end of the academic year. The small, private Catholic college was founded 128 years ago and was a fixture – and major employer — in the town.
St. Joseph’s president, Robert Pastoor, argued that the College would need about $100 million to be feasible, with an immediate infusion of $20 million needed before the end of June. He stated: “Despite our best efforts, we were not able to escape the financial challenges that many tuition-dependent smaller universities have faced in the past several years.”
Financial Challenges, Decades in the Making, Were Insurmountable
Mr. Pastoor cited extensive debt, fears the College would permanently lose accreditation, depreciated facilities, and pressure from auditors that would limit access to student loans as the reasons for the Board of Trustees’ decision. Last November, an accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, placed St. Joseph’s on probation through 2018 citing concerns over “resources, planning and institutional effectiveness.”
There are many lessons to be learned from the financial failure of St. Joseph’s College. There are also strong views about the failure of the Board and administrators to demonstrate transparency even if the signs were there after the accreditation actions last November. The finger pointing will likely begin, especially directed to the Board of Trustees, but there’s undoubtedly plenty of blame to go around. The cold fact is that no one expects a college to close even when the signs point to it.
Much of the reporting on the closure focused on the sense of loss felt by students and alumni, who invested their sense of self – psychologically and emotionally – in the place. Students are now scrambling to find a way to complete their education affordably. Alumni feel strongly about their alma mater and wonder if their degrees will continue to hold value.
Impact of College’s Closure on Local Community Cannot Be Ignored
The story of loss that is more often ignored, however, is the impact the closing of a college has on its community. In college communities affected by closures, the economic impact of a college’s business operations suddenly becomes important. In the case of St. Joseph’s, the College employed more than 200 individuals, making it a major employer in a town of 6,000 people in a largely agricultural region. These soon-to-be former employees will face limited options as they begin to think about future employment.
There are also secondary effects on a community when larger employers like St. Joseph’s close. The college is the town’s third largest utility customer after the local hospital and the school district, spending $640,000 last year, according to its Mayor. The ripple effect on local businesses will spread across the region as the employment base shrinks and 900 students spend their consumer dollars elsewhere.
As Melissa Shultz, a local businesswoman and lifelong resident lamented to a Chicago Tribune reporter: “I just don’t want this to become a ghost town.”
The loss to a community is comparable to an auto plant shutting down or a mine closure except for an important distinction. The business of higher education is a public good whose benefits extend well beyond employment. America’s colleges – of whatever size – prepare citizens for the workforce. They are also among the principal economic engines in their region. They bring visitors to Main Street, anchor the quality of life, and provide continuous stable employment in a way that the much touted reopening of the Carrier plant in Indianapolis cannot do.
America can continue to let its Rust Belt deteriorate as demographic shifts depopulate its rural stretches. Or, policy makers can see the impact that inattention has had well beyond the slogans and the politics of nationalism that will delay but not stop globalization. That boat sailed before this century began.
Instead, what is most needed is a kind of Tennessee Valley Authority approach to re-imagining the towns that America’s post-industrial economy will otherwise leave behind.
The closing of St. Joseph’s College is a warning shot to America about the loss of bedrock institutions that defined entire towns.
It was like a death in the family. The solution to solving the problems of the Rust Belt is not simply to find more manufacturing jobs for unemployed workers in new Toyota plants.
In the end, all politics is local.