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The Higher Education Apocalypse
                                                  by US News

For almost seven years, officials in Massachusetts – the higher education mecca of the world – cautiously monitored and prepared for the potentially devastating impact that the inevitable drop in college and university enrollment would unleash.

"We've been doing it relatively quietly," Carlos Santiago, the commissioner of higher education in the Bay State, says about efforts to deflect the slow-moving storm that's now engulfed more than a dozen colleges and universities, pushing them to merge, consolidate or reinvent themselves in other ways to survive.

Then something unexpected happened last spring that changed everything: On a Friday afternoon in April, the 119-year-old Mount Ida College in Newton abruptly announced it was broke and planned to shutter its doors after commencement the following month, leaving nearly a thousand students scrambling to figure out their future.

The sudden closure, which until then had been a storyline associated mainly with corrupt for-profit schools, sent a jolt through the state and put school administrators across the country on high alert that declining profits and diminishing enrollment were reaching a stage of crisis.

"The culminating moment was the abrupt closure of Mount Ida, the way it transpired and the real outrage that came not only from the college community but also from parents and Massachusetts in general," Santiago says.

Within months, Massachusetts officials went from monitoring the effect of market forces on their higher education industry to actively playing a role in mitigating future risks.

In response, Santiago and state lawmakers convened a working group that quickly prepared a report detailing the emergency and outlining eight specific recommendations to ensure that the state – along with students and the campus community, more importantly – isn't caught off guard again.

Among other things, the recommendations call for a financial evaluation of all colleges and universities to identify those in need of potential monitoring or intervention, a requirement that schools alert students when they are at risk of not being able to operate for 18 months out, and the establishment of an Office of Student Protection.

The recommendations, which were included in legislation filed by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker last week, are slated for full implementation by the fall.

For a state that's home to hundreds of schools that collectively enroll close to half a million students and employ hundreds of thousands of workers, Massachusetts's economy is intrinsically linked to the success of its institutions of higher education, perhaps more than any other in the country. Quite literally, it cannot afford more Mount Ida-like closures.

"Our objective is not fundamentally to stop an institutional merger, closure or consolidation," Santiago says. "It's really to protect students as best we can. Those are the driving forces."

Santiago is quick to note that what happened at Mount Ida, where administrators kept its flailing financials largely secret and did little to ensure a smooth transfer process for students, is an exception. Other schools have navigated much more responsible paths, he says.

Wheelock College, for example, merged with Boston University last year after enrollment dropped and it couldn't keep up with the cost of operations. For similar reasons, Newbury College in Brookline announced last year that it plans to close this spring, leaving students ample time to transfer. Most recently, Hampshire College in Amherst announced in January that it's seeking to partner with another institution in order to continue operating.

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