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New England college presidents pessimistic about future

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Some of the earliest and most iconic institutions in American higher education, small New England colleges are threatened with becoming obsolete because of new kinds of competition and their own unsustainable financial model, according to the institutions’ presidents themselves.

Forty-three percent of presidents of small New England colleges surveyed by the journal of the New England Board of Higher Education disagreed that “the small New England college will remain an important fixture within the academic landscape for many years to come.”

One unnamed respondent pronounced: “If your institution does not have a well-defined market niche … that is robust, be that market in or out of New England, it is toast.”

This high-level gloom, released at the start of a new academic year, follows other evidence of problems in higher education.

Among the challenges they face, the presidents cited shifting demographics, rising operating costs, falling state and federal support, and new competition.

“Given these tensions, who would be surprised if college presidents in the region weren’t occasionally plagued by sleepless nights, hounded by anxious trustees, or passing a few furtive moments hiding beneath their desks?” wrote the authors of the survey—Jay Halfond, former dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, and Peter Stokes, former chief research officer of the consulting firm Eduventures.

While survey respondents said their own institutions were likely to weather the storm by changing their financial models, ending the fatal spiral of giving deep discounts to students to fill seats, and using online education to cut costs, “The bad news is that while a universally applied strategy like this could perhaps work in an ever-growing market, in New England, the opposite is likely to be true,” the authors wrote.

“Our region will be characterized by intensified competition for a shrinking pool of prospective students. Even in the realm of online learning, growth rates are declining as competition heats up, with no infinite market to tap for new students. So while strategies such as these may work for some of our colleges, they cannot logically work for all at the same time, especially those smaller schools without resources to extend their reach.”

They wrote that speed is of the essence, and, for institutions that wait too long to change, “the result could look something like a game of musical chairs: When the music stops, a few may find that they are no longer in the game at all.”

Sixty percent of the presidents said colleges that lose this race will be absorbed into other institutions, or be forced to close.

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