Why Some Small Colleges Are In Big Trouble

Monday, April 15, 2013

The chairs and tables in the dining hall at Atlantic Union College in South Lancaster are lined up neatly, as if lunch is about to be served. But the doors are locked, the giant clock on the wall has stopped, and the notice on the window is anything but welcoming: “This building has been secured and is off-limits until further notice.”

This 129-year-old campus, just northeast of Worcester, looks like that of any other Massachusetts private college: tidy red-brick buildings with white trim and arched windows behind stone walls overhung by ancient trees. On closer inspection, however, many of the window frames are bent, the paint is peeling, and there’s little sign of life but for the songs of birds.

After years of financial and academic troubles, Atlantic Union unceremoniously closed in 2011. By that point, its enrollment had fallen to just 450 — half its capacity — and attracting even that many students required huge payouts of financial aid. The college eventually ran out of money, almost all of its remaining 120 employees were laid off, and the students were dispersed to other schools around the country.

In May 2012, New Hampshire’s 144-student Chester College closed its doors, joining Atlantic Union and a growing list of shuttered schools in Nebraska, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Now new and persistent warnings from inside and outside higher education suggest that more small private colleges, including some in Massachusetts, could be destined for the same fate.

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