Colleges in Crisis
May 26, 2021 | 6 minute read

Tags: administration, college closures, coronavirus, ethics, ethics in education, ethics in enrollment, higher education

Creating Student-Centered Closure Plans

By Laura A. De Veau, Ed.D.

As news of mergers, joint-ventures and rightsizing in higher education becomes increasingly common, it brings into focus that the predicted increase in college closures is also coming to fruition, and campus leaders need to plan for such events.

The impact of COVID-19 is not entirely known at this point, and the fallout will be felt for years to come. While the infusion of federal funds into campus coffers may help to put bandages on some of the wounds, short-term infusions of cash will not fix the myriad factors pushing some colleges and universities toward closure. Innovative solutions are being considered to address these challenges, but many will be too little or too late to turn every struggling campus toward viability. In those cases, campus administrators need to begin planning for what happens when the doors shut for good.

Campus closures are events that will challenge the leadership acumen of executive leaders and trustees. I say this with emphatic certainty, having experienced it myself. As the Vice President for Student Affairs at Mount Ida College (Newton, MA), I, along with the provost and other cabinet members, presided over a hyperdrive closure of our 1,300-student campus. From the point that the president summoned me to his office to break the news, to the moment that I turned in my keys, a mere six weeks passed. During that time, we made sure that students had opportunities to visit with admissions staff from more than 120 other colleges and universities. We arranged for tours of various nearby campuses for groups of students, set up mechanisms by which students could easily pick up necessary paperwork to complete their applications, held town halls to ensure all student and faculty voices were heard, and held traditional end-of-year celebrations in an effort for students to say good-bye. Difficult as it was, our goal throughout was to make it the most student-centered closure possible.

Having dedicated my 30-year career in higher education to the student affairs profession, being “student-centered” had always been baked into my work. So, it was impossible during Mount Ida’s closure to pivot the efforts of our 65-person student affairs team to a posture that was purely transactional. We had recruited these students, housed them, provided them learning and living accommodations, counseled them, and so much more. As such, we were committed to a closure where they were treated with compassion and care – a final student-centered act.

In discussing the closure experience with Mount Ida’s students, we learned that the efforts of the college’s student affairs and services staff were notable and deeply appreciated, even as many of those same students were angry with the president and the trustees over the closure. Students were able to differentiate between the faculty and staff, whom they trusted, and those whom they felt had violated that trust. The lesson to me was clear: A closure is not an event that executive leaders want to plan for, but in certain cases they must. By planning carefully and executing in a compassionate student-centered mindset, campus leaders can show the students that they are being seen and heard – even when abrupt and traumatic events are unfolding around them.

In strategizing a closure plan, leaders should begin by prioritizing the students above all – for they are the people that every reputable institution exists to serve and educate. Further, every successful closure plan should include three defining elements, which allow for a base by which to connect other mission specific activities and mechanisms: commit to maintain essential staffing and services; identify robust transfer options; and create a centralized student service hub.

  • Commit to maintain essential staffing and services. Students will need support through their final day on campus, and nothing says “you don’t matter” as much as empty offices and a skeleton staff who are overwhelmed. As the closure becomes imminent, it may seem attractive to plan for staff reductions to save human resource dollars, but I would challenge leaders to instead retain key staff in student facing areas such as health, counseling and academic support services. You should also protect offices that will perform the production and dissemination of key administrative records to students, regulators and other institutions. Retention bonuses for staff members who may leave before the end of the academic year and whose jobs are essential to support students through this period should be considered.  Additionally, the redeployment of staff, such as athletic coaches and admissions staff, into roles that assist with the transfer process makes good sense.
  • Identify transfer options. Students seeking transfer deserve options, and a range of choices should be provided for them. These might include similar institutions where campus culture feels familiar; different institutions with excellent reputations for specific academic programs; state institutions where dollars will go further; and private institutions that have a commitment to complimentary missions. Begin by performing an audit of your campus enrollment trends. Which majors are highly enrolled and will be attractive for large cohorts of students to potentially transfer? What are your smaller, niche programs that will be more difficult to find a home? When formulating your list of potential partners, consider programs regionally that have similar academic philosophies, faculty/student ratio, and whose accreditation is solid. The plan should also identify programs that are transactional and aspirational in nature. Students want viable options to consider and appreciate choices that are not only a good academic match, but which may also provide them with campuses and programs that have familiar as well as uncommon qualities. Student-athletes who were actively recruited because of their interest in a sport should be given options where that might continue.
  • Create a centralized student service hub. In order to successfully transfer, students need to provide a multitude of paperwork. The closing institution must provide mechanisms to centralize and simplify this process. Your institution can proactively create a comprehensive list of student records that will be needed to activate a student’s transfer, including transcripts, student conduct records, disability accommodations, NCAA eligibility, and financial aid awards. By determining how paperwork will be produced as well as identifying potential mid-level managers who will be responsible for the distribution of that paperwork, leaders can reduce student frustration. The moment that the closure is announced, many students will begin to request these documents, and the closing institution needs to be prepared to produce them in a timely and accurate manner.

Instead of focusing all of their efforts on avoiding closure, responsible leaders of vulnerable institutions should also be encouraged to dedicate ample time and energy toward creating a student-centered closure plan. In doing so, those leaders will be forced to face with the emotional and administrative difficulties that go along with closure, therefore informing other decisions along the way.

Thoughtful closure plans can help ease difficult transitions for students and assist them in the timely completion of their degrees. Making the plan student-centered will set the stage for a humane closure that reinforces respect for the students and their decision to enroll at the institution.

Laura A. De Veau, Ed.D. is the founder of Fortify Associates, a consulting firm located in Newton, MA that serves higher education, not-for-profit and small business verticals on matters related to workplace optimization, strategic planning and management, and executive development. She is an adjunct faculty member at Boston University’s Wheelock College for Education & Human Development teaching in the graduate program in Higher Education Administration. De Veau served as the Vice President for Student Affairs at Mount Ida College from 2013 until its closure in May of 2018.

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