Should Your College Close Its Doors?


A number of years back I met a guy who told me that he had graduated from a small, Christian school that used to be located in New Jersey but had since pulled up stakes and moved to Florida. That school, Shelton College, was originally located in Ringwood near the New York State border and later moved to Cape May County before heading south to the sunshine state. By the early 1990s Shelton College was bankrupt and soon closed its doors.

closedShelton College may not be the best example of a college which eventually shut its doors, given that it never attained national accreditation. However, it is among a number of schools that have closed its doors over the past two decades (remember Upsala College in East Orange, NJ?) or eventually was merged into another institution. In almost every case, transcripts are entrusted to another school whether there is an official merger or not, giving former students permanent access to their academic records.

Coming To The End Of The Line

Alice Brown, the former president of the Appalachian College Association, addressed the subject of closing a school in her Inside Higher Ed article, “Time to Close the College?” which appeared there on June 26, 2009. Ms. Brown has worked extensively with small colleges, many of whom had serious and ongoing financial problems, the same sort of issue plaguing some schools during this deep recession. In her research of four colleges that had closed after being in operation for more than one hundred years, Brown concluded that not every college should last forever, rather ways should be found to gracefully close schools once their purpose for operating is no longer relevant. Brown’s full report will be published by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in the near future.

I won’t rehash everything that Brown said, but I do appreciate her sensitivity to what these schools and their faculty, staff, administrators and students have gone through. Many of the affected institutions were instrumental in shaping the lives of students, some of whom may never had gone to college. But that doesn’t mean that a school whose impact was so strong during another era can or should navigate its way through the 21st century.

Not Waiting For Bankruptcy

As Brown noted, some schools wait until they are in bankruptcy before deciding to close their doors. This is unfortunate because once a school enters bankruptcy, then they lose control over the institution. Everyone gets burned when a school closes in a disorderly manner, with some students forced to hurriedly transfer to another college.

I like Brown’s suggestion that schools “teach out” its remaining students before shutting its doors. The college pending closure accepts no new students but works with those who remain to finish up their coursework and graduate. In my opinion this can even be especially beneficial to the remaining students who would gain additional guidance and oversight as they work their way through school – certainly no one would fall through the cracks as all of the attention would be focused on them.

Close, Merge Or Restructure?

Brown also mentioned other options for colleges considering closing their doors including merging with another college or restructuring to essentially become a new institution with a fresh purpose. However, those options must be workable with all parties concerned realistically weighing whether this is the best direction to take. Ultimately, whatever decision is reached is one that should yield the following response years later – “It was the right thing to do.”

Photo Credit: Michael Lorenzo

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Categories: Commentary