Emily Jan / The Atlantic

The Surreal End of an American College

Small schools across the United States are facing budget shortfalls and low enrollment—leading some to shut down in the middle of students’ higher-education experience.

Updated at 12:07 p.m. on June 19, 2019

Like most other colleges across the country, Newbury College, a small, private liberal-arts school in Brookline, Massachusetts, held classes through the end of this past spring semester and then bid farewell to cap-and-gown-wearing seniors. But unlike almost every other college, those classes, and that farewell, were the school’s last: Newbury officially ceased operations at the end of May.

One of the first sources to publicly confirm the long-rumored closure was the president’s blog, where the news was shared last December. “It is with a heavy heart,” the school’s president, Joseph Chillo, wrote, “that I announce our intention to commence the closing of Newbury College, this institution we love so dearly.”

After that announcement, which was also blasted out in an email, about 25 percent of the student body decided to not even come back to campus for the spring semester, according to Chillo. But for the students who did—as well as their professors who stuck around—life on campus had already flatlined by the time they returned in January. As the light-pink blossoms began to sprout from the campus’s weeping cherry trees, Newbury’s nearly eight acres of Georgian-style buildings felt like a shadow of the school it’d been just a few months prior. It was no longer the college that Deborah Mael, an English professor who taught at the institution for most of its existence, remembered; the benches where her now-adult daughters had sat as kids remained empty, as did the dorms where they had relished the opportunity to hang out with older girls.

The dining hall, typically so crowded during peak lunch hours that the lines would snake out onto the neatly manicured quad, was too quiet to enjoy. The gym, which used to resonate with the clanks of athletes at weight machines and the thuds of runners on treadmills, felt abandoned, too. Faculty offices were hollowed out. Classroom attendance was abysmal. Enrollment plummeted from a little more than 600 before the closure announcement to almost half that by the end of the semester. “It hasn’t been much of a dwindling,” Mallory Stefan, who just finished her junior year at Newbury and plans to complete her degree at nearby Lasell College, in Newton, told me in April at a Dunkin’ Donuts, where she was studying for finals before heading off to her part-time job. Rather, “it’s pretty much just been a drop-off.”

Stefan on Newbury’s campus in Brookline, Massachusetts (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Could anything have been done to prevent this ending? “Yes, we should’ve been doing online,” Chillo told me, alluding to the kinds of new-revenue tactics explored by many similar colleges. “Yes, we should’ve been developing a graduate program.

“Fundamentally, though,” Chillo continued, “there was no money for that investment.”

Many students and faculty described the news of the 57-year-old college’s closure as simultaneously shocking and predictable, a dissonance that few had the words to describe. “I think I sensed it [was coming],” Joshua Humphries, one of the 111 members of Newbury’s graduating class, told me. “But I never connected the dots.”

In many ways, a college’s closure plays out like a business liquidation—the employees get their severance packages, the property goes on the market, the customers are told to move on.

But students and faculty suggested that a college closure cuts even deeper—that the raw pain and the stakes involved in such a shutdown are compounded by the fact that Newbury was also home. And Newbury welcomed many of its students when few other schools would: Compared with nearby private, liberal-arts institutions, Newbury’s students were more likely to be poor, identify as people of color, and/or have parents who did not attend college themselves. (Seventy percent of Newbury’s undergraduates were, according to Chillo, first-generation college students.) For these reasons, the closure feels personal, more like a breakup than a liquidation. The shuttering is for some “a proxy for [their] sense of self-worth,” Mael told me.

Texts between Newbury students after finding out about the school closing

Students I spoke with described a grieving process after hearing the news that went from shock to panic, curiosity to nostalgia, heartbreak to acceptance. Stefan, who’s from the Denver area and had finished her finals early last December, was on a cruise celebrating her 21st birthday when news of the closure broke, oblivious due to her lack of reception. Upon returning to shore, her phone lit up with texts from her friends and bosses. Stefan, who’d held a host of roles on campus during her three years at Newbury—an athlete on three sports teams, an RA, and a work-study employee in admissions, to name a few—started applying to other colleges as soon as she got home. She proceeded to spend her entire winter break obsessing—and often crying—over her next steps. “Every day I was like, Oh my Godwhat am I going to do?!” Stefan recalled. “Newbury was my home away from home.”

As tends to be the case with unanticipated breakups, students and faculty acknowledge that, in retrospect, there were obvious signs that a demise was long in the making. Among the most obvious: the revelation last summer that New England’s college-accrediting agency had put the school on probation for its failure to fulfill certain financial criteria. But many of the students who do recall picking up on the school’s deterioration likely relegated those observations to the back burner as they focused on papers and projects, Pell grant applications and part-time jobs.

Plus, during Newbury’s final chapter, the school almost seemed to be in its prime, reminiscent of its heyday in the 1980s, when it was the largest two-year postsecondary institution in the United States. Newbury owed its onetime glory to a relatively obscure entrepreneur named Ed Tassinari, who in the early 1960s had founded Newbury in Boston’s fashionable Back Bay neighborhood, branding it as a business-oriented school. Tassinari over the years rejiggered that model, including converting the school to a four-year institution, and established Newbury—both the main campus and the series of satellite campuses that he subsequently acquired—as a pipeline to jobs throughout the Boston region.

In recent years, the school had expanded its NCAA Division III offerings. A brand-new men’s lacrosse program, announced in 2017, had been slated to launch this past spring, with a head coach appointed last year. Many of its existing teams had been getting better and better, some making it to the New England Conference championships. This past school year’s freshman class was one of Newbury’s largest, too; the college had to hire more residence staff and rent land from a nearby college to accommodate the growth. Art exhibits, club posters, and event flyers covered the new student center’s walls. On his blog, Chillo touted Newbury’s new degrees, study-abroad programs, business partnerships, and construction projects.

Which is in large part why the closure announcement blindsided students. “When I got the email, I was like, What is happening?” said Humphries, the recent graduate. “When I sent it to my friends, in a group chat, everybody was like, What the heck? Like, how? What is going on? We were all just confused.”

Stefan felt similarly. “We were literally having our best year,” she said. “It was just on the up-and-up—and then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.”

Looking back, higher-education experts—including Chillo—say the school first started having troubles when it began granting bachelor’s degrees. It couldn’t compete in a market already saturated with four-year colleges—the greater Boston area alone is home to more than 50 such institutions, according to one analysis of the metropolitan’s core and neighboring cities and towns.

National trends, too, signaled a coming reckoning. In 2011, just a few years after the economy had tanked, the writer Clayton Christensen, a Harvard professor of business administration known for his advocacy of “disruptive innovation,” declared in his then-new book that the rise of online education would destroy half of the country’s colleges and universities by about 2030. After a slight uptick, the total did start to decline: At the peak, in 2013–2014, the U.S. was home to 3,122 four-year colleges, according to Education Department data; four years later, the number had dropped by 7 percent, to 2,902.

To be sure, the majority of those shuttered schools were for-profit colleges, a model whose underwhelming outcomes and questionable student-recruitment tactics garnered public scrutiny and government regulation. But recently, as people like Barbara Brittingham of the New England Commission of Higher Education note, certain regions have witnessed this trend encroach on nonprofit colleges in noticeable ways. In some places, such as Vermont, it’s felt as if small, private institutions are toppling one after the other. Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph all announced closure plans within a few months of one another earlier this year.

Pine Manor, another small, liberal-arts school in Brookline that’s found itself in precarious financial circumstances (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

At the same time, the country’s colleges and universities have experienced a pronounced increase in the number of freshmen applications received over the past 15 or so years, a trend reflected in the U.S. undergraduate population’s dramatic growth, from 16.7 million in 1996 to 20 million in 2016, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. The reason for this makes sense: Personal success in the modern economy, research suggests, is more incumbent than ever on whether one has a college degree (if only because of employers’ growing tendency to treat such a degree as essential).

Yet selective colleges and universities—those that accept fewer than half of prospective students—have enjoyed a disproportionate share of that growth, receiving close to two out of every five applications despite accounting for fewer than a fifth of the country’s higher-education institutions. What’s more, the number of applications doesn’t correlate with the number of students. (The number of applications per high schooler has soared in part thanks to the Common App, which makes applying to additional schools much easier.) In fact, a gradual downturn in U.S. birth rates has led to a decrease in the country’s current high-school population (which remains four-year colleges’ primary source of students). A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse research center underscores just how dramatically this is playing out. In spring 2019, overall postsecondary enrollment decreased by 1.7 percent, or nearly 300,000 students, from the previous spring.

This has all but the very top tier of colleges and universities—whose prestige effectively serves as a self-perpetuating revenue engine—on edge. But it’s especially nerve-racking for institutions in parts of the country where the aging is more pronounced, which, according to analyses by the Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe, are concentrated east of the Mississippi River—especially New England. Grawe predicted that the number of high-school graduates in Massachusetts, for example, could drop by as much as 15 percent from 2012 to 2032. This is perhaps most devastating for the colleges in these regions faced with the double whammy of demographic change and proximity to brand-name institutions that eclipse them with their practically unlimited resources and academic accomplishments. The kinds of colleges most at risk in this confluence of bad news? Small, less selective liberal-arts institutions that tend to draw primarily from their local populations. Institutions like Newbury.

Against this backdrop, the New England Commission of Higher Education has been especially vigilant in ensuring that federal financial-aid dollars are being used appropriately, says Brittingham, who oversees the body. The commission serves as the region’s college-accrediting agency, describing itself on its website as “the gatekeeper for [students’] access to federal financial aid.” Because this money is all but integral to an institution’s survival—roughly nine in 10 Newbury students received federal student loans—the body plays a significant role in determining whether one of its member institutions thrives or topples.

The closures and mergers are nothing new, Brittingham says. During times of a growing youth population and favorable economic conditions, the agency can focus more on objectives such as quality improvement for accredited schools. But when conditions aren’t so fortuitous, the equation flips: Not only are colleges contending with an inopportune financial climate, they’re also under extra scrutiny to perform. “With the public expecting more of higher education and, frankly, more of accreditation,” Brittingham says, “the commission finds itself spending more time on quality assurance,” by which she means who is getting accreditation in the first place.

Some of the conditions contributing to this perfect storm are of the institutions’ own making, such as their exorbitant sticker price (close to $37,000 on average nationally, which is about the same as Newbury’s tuition and fees, not including housing and other costs), their lackluster educational outcomes (like low graduation rates and gainful-employment results), and a resistance to change on the part of faculty and administrative officials. But most at-risk colleges do seek to remedy their problems; it’s just that they do so too late. By then, many are already losing students, and the accompanying revenue. Meanwhile, they struggle to compete with bigger institutions on offerings such as low faculty-to-student ratios, high-end facilities, and the provision of mental-health services, because these resources cost a lot more per student at smaller colleges, which don’t enjoy the economies of scale of their larger peers.

Trade-offs are inevitable, with many leading to unintended consequences. Colleges focused on equity may have to roll back their financial aid; some, for example, have stopped providing need-blind admissions. Others have created programs—such as online courses or time-consuming course enhancements—that many faculty oppose, arguing that such offerings stray from what they were hired to do. Many tuition-dependent colleges, perhaps counterintuitively, have resorted to steep tuition discounts in an effort to bolster the number and caliber of applicants. This tactic may improve access for much-deserving students, but the colleges take a major hit in revenue. A recent report found that tuition-discount rates have reached record highs at private colleges, with the average among incoming freshmen exceeding 50 percent during the 2017–2018 school year. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, a former chief financial officer of Bowdoin College described this trend as “a race to the bottom.”

(Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

Several students told me they decided to attend Newbury because of its financial-aid packages. Caleb MacDonald, a rising junior who plans to attend Suffolk University in the fall, said scholarship money tempted him into taking a “leap of faith” by attending Newbury. But for many students, it was still a lot of money. Terrance Norvin, one of the few class of 2019 members who ended up graduating in May, remembered being shocked at what his family was expected to pay: about $16,000 a year, even after significant discounts. “My mom could buy me a Toyota!” he exclaimed. (The sticker price for attending Newbury, including housing, was $52,570 for the 2016–2017 school year.)

Some higher-education experts describe the country’s postsecondary landscape as a sort of Darwinian ecosystem in which the weak institutions’ inevitable failure strengthens the structure that remains. “When you have a market, you have to compete”—and given how competitive the higher-education market has become, entities that “overextend” themselves invariably “go out of business,” says Michael Alexander, the president of Lasell College, another small New England school whose small endowment, low enrollment, and middle-tier status similarly put it at risk of demise. “We [small colleges] didn’t create the problem,” Alexander says, “but we have to adjust to it.” Institutions like Newbury simply struggled, then failed, to adjust—or just didn’t want to adjust in the first place.

Chillo said he had an epiphany his first day as Newbury’s fifth and final president, back in 2014. He’d already served in various capacities at the school since 2008, including as its dean of admissions, and at a handful of other small, private colleges (among them Wheelock College, which shut down and merged with Boston University last year). As someone who’d spent his whole career in higher education, Chillo understood—and appreciated—that “every [higher-education] institution has its beauty marks and warts,” he told me.

Having already witnessed the recession’s upending of already vulnerable higher-education institutions, and its particularly brutal impact on small colleges such as Newbury, he knew that presiding over the institution wouldn’t be easy. But on meeting with the board of trustees during his first day as president, he realized just how “crazy” and “challenging” it was going to be. The board, he recalls, explained that Newbury could go in one of two directions.

One: “We blow the heck out of this,” meaning “we rebuild and retool the institution”—Newbury could leverage existing fundraising vehicles and explore new revenue streams. It could ramp up the strongest programs and overhaul the weakest. It could invest in new facilities to improve its application and retention rates, ultimately reversing the vicious cycle of underwhelming enrollment trends and tuition dependence into a virtuous one of growing demand and a diversified financial portfolio.

Two: “If we can’t blow this up and make the institution move, then we have to figure out a way to close it.”

Hence what Chillo described as the “Jekyll and Hyde syndrome” that dogged him throughout his five years as president: “Some days you feel like, This institution’s got a future for the next 50 years,” he said. “And then you have those moments when you’re looking at the balance sheet and going, Okay, we’ve got warts here, and the warts are significant.”

Those more pessimistic moments grew in frequency over his first few semesters as president. By 2015, Newbury was gasping for air. Then came the probation. By Thanksgiving break 2018, Chillo and his team decided that “the only right thing to do” was to pull the plug. The board of trustees voted on December 7 to close the school—a week before it announced the decision publicly. According to Chillo, the primary reason for the delay was to avoid worrying students when they were already stressed out about finals, which were taking place that same week. It also created a buffer during which administrators could finalize agreements with designated transfer institutions—schools such as Lasell, Curry College, Fisher College, Suffolk, and Framingham State that had agreed to customize an admissions pathway for Newbury students into their own programs.

Newbury gave its community notice of the forthcoming closure decision well in advance. Chillo described the December 14 announcement as a financial sacrifice for the sake of morality. He could have disseminated the news once classes resumed in late January and boosted the college’s bottom line by avoiding revenue losses due to dropouts, but he wanted to ensure that faculty members could take advantage of new job opportunities, which for academic positions in the fall tend to be posted in the winter.

“The hardest part was when I sat down and wrote the … announcement,” Chillo told me. That was when he realized the closure was real—that it wasn’t just a private thing for him to agonize over with a small group of executives, but something he had to break to students and faculty, whose lives and plans were all about to be dramatically altered.

Stefan doesn’t regret giving Newbury a shot, even though the transition to Lasell has caused major headaches (turns out, it’s especially difficult to transfer credits if you’re a media-production major), and she’s losing the housing stipend she got through being an RA at Newbury (she’s working three jobs so she’ll be able to afford rent).

In high school back in Colorado, Stefan was shy, socially anxious, unsure of herself. By going to Newbury, she wanted “to become something bigger.” “And that’s what a lot of kids at Newbury are”—or were—“trying to do,” Stefan told me. They probably didn’t have the best GPAs or do many, if any, extracurriculars; some probably didn’t even think they wanted to go to college or had it in them to do so. “They came here for that chance because nobody [else] gave them that chance,” she said. “And that’s what’s going to really suck, because they’re not going to be given the chance that they deserve.”

For better or worse, few people at Newbury have had the opportunity to dwell on the closure. Newbury itself proceeded with a slew of ad hoc solutions as soon as the decision became official: Admissions officers became transfer officers; the college created “curriculum maps,” protocols and tweaks to facilitate a more streamlined academic transition from Newbury. The faculty who remained—like Mael, the English professor—did whatever they could to accommodate their students’ needs.

(Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

All that support did help. “I wasn’t worried” about my next steps, said MacDonald, the rising junior who’s transferring to Suffolk. “I was just sad about the connections that I would be losing.”

When we spoke, Mael referenced a message she’d disseminated among students at the beginning of every semester: that they, despite the tough circumstances from which so many of them came, ought to interrogate when and how they could control a given situation. The closure wasn’t a situation they could reverse, she advised the young adults in her final classes; it wasn’t fair. “But what we do have control over is how we live out this semester,” she remembered telling them. “You didn’t cause this; you didn’t do anything wrong … So what are you going to do? And how can we [professors] help you to do that?”

Other small colleges across the country are doing what they can to avoid Newbury’s fate. Hiram College, in Ohio, recently trademarked two new programs—The New Liberal Arts and Tech and Trek—to set itself apart from its peers. Delaware Valley University has included in its strategic plan revenue-driving programs such as summer camps and classes for retired people. Simmons University, a women’s institution, has shifted much of its energy toward online education, its president told me; its graduate programs are now co-ed, too. Lasell has experimented with some version of all the above.

Still, in the years ahead, many will fall. Students will have to say goodbye to the places where they went to become adults, and find somewhere else to take them in, somewhere that promises a bright future—for both the students and the institution.