Higher education’s walking dead are already among us. Figuring out exactly who they are, though, is tricky and fraught.
That fact came into sharp relief this week, when a college-advising company scuttled its plans to release a list of private, nonprofit colleges that it expects to run out of money and close in the coming years, according to a new financial-modeling tool.
Edmit, the advising company, decided against releasing the information when some of the 946 colleges that were to be named in the analysis pushed back or threatened legal action.
The episode set off renewed discussion about the limited information that many students and families possess about the precarious finances of some of the nation’s colleges, hundreds of which have closed in recent years, upending students’ lives. (Most of the college closures of the last five years have been for-profit institutions, a recent Chronicle analysis found.)
Edmit’s decision was first reported on Tuesday by Inside Higher Ed, which had planned to publish an article about the projections, linking to the full list on GitHub, a platform for open-source projects. Edmit, however, said it had decided to keep the data private because it could not take the financial risk of being sued.
The financial-modeling tool was developed primarily by master’s students in Brandeis University’s finance program, who took on the project as part of an experiential-learning requirement. Edmit, in turn, hoped to produce better information about colleges’ financial solvency for consumers, including the company’s clients, its founders said.
Private colleges may have had legitimate quibbles with the reliability of the projections, which were derived from an analysis of publicly available data on endowment-investment returns, tuition prices, tuition discounting, and faculty and staff salaries. Even so, the optics of private colleges’ unleashing their lawyers in this case reinforced shopworn critiques that higher education resists transparency — always under the guise that no metric is good enough. Many colleges, for example, opposed efforts by the Obama administration to develop a college-ratings plan that would tie federal aid to certain performance measures, such as graduation rates.
“This is a classic thing the higher-ed lobby does: The data aren’t perfect, so let’s not do anything,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education with the education-policy program at New America, a Washington think tank. “And then they lobby against the data being better.”
For financially struggling colleges, there is an understandable fear that making grim public forecasts will only panic students and exacerbate enrollment problems. On the other hand, Laitinen said, being more open about challenges might invite new solutions, including greater alumni support or partnerships with other institutions.
“I don’t think anyone wants to acknowledge this, but there are some schools that just aren’t going to make it the way things are going,” Laitinen said. “If you are not honest about it, you’ll see a precipitous closure that will end up harming students.”
Nick Ducoff, a co-founder of Edmit, said the company had hoped to inspire researchers to crowdsource more refined tools for analyzing colleges’ financial health. That was the logic behind posting the information on GitHub, he said.
“We wanted to make it all open-source and freely available for others to build upon,” said Ducoff, a former vice president for new ventures at Northeastern University.
(Sabrina Manville, a former associate vice president for marketing at Southern New Hampshire University, is the company’s other co-founder.)
The Chronicle asked to review Edmit’s data, but the company declined to provide it.
In recent days, Edmit has been in talks with foundations and other sponsors that might be interested in publishing the data, Ducoff said. But, he said, “there are obviously folks who don’t want it out at all in any form or fashion.”
Giving Colleges a ‘Sell-By Date’
Edmit wouldn’t be the first to attempt to divine the scale of future college closures. What made its model provocative and controversial, though, was the idea of predicting closing dates for specific colleges and making those projections public.
The College Stress Test, a book due out in February from the Johns Hopkins University Press, will present its own methodology for “estimating the market viability” of more than 2,800 colleges, according to a news release. But it won’t name names.
Susan Campbell Baldridge, one of the book’s co-authors and a former provost of Middlebury College, said in an email to The Chronicle that colleges in financial difficulty have to balance transparency with “their need to continue to attract and retain students.”
“We were mindful of this in our decision not to include the scores of individual schools,” Campbell wrote.
Instead, the book provides a tool by which colleges can calculate their own financial vulnerabilities.
“Those at greatest risk of imminent closure don’t likely need our tool to know they’re on the brink,” Campbell wrote. “The book is written not for the captain of the Titanic; it’s written for those who still have a chance to avoid the iceberg.”
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, a lobbying group for private, nonprofit colleges, worried that the Edmit analysis would saddle colleges with “a sell-by date based on four factors that are two years old,” said Peter Boyle, a spokesman for the group.
“To assume the recent economic past is the best indicator of future viability, I think, is risky,” Boyle said. “The broader conversation about closures is a good one, and one we’d like to be part of.”
Ducoff, Edmit’s co-founder, said, “We stand by the methodology.”
“This is a financial-modeling approach used frequently in evaluating for-profit companies,” he wrote in an email. “Nonprofit colleges are still corporations and need to make more money than they spend or have enough cash in the bank to cover any losses. We sought expert feedback on our approach from other researchers, both before this news came out and continue to, since there’s been a ton of interest from researchers, foundations, and even colleges themselves.”
Edmit teamed up with Brandeis through MassChallenge FinTech, a start-up accelerator in Massachusetts that connects young companies with strategic partners. Stephen G. Cecchetti, the faculty supervisor for the project, said in an email to The Chronicle that it was “entirely executed by a group of five students, with very modest intervention.” He did not respond to questions about his level of confidence in the efficacy of the model or whether it could stand up to peer review.
Utica College, which has sharply cut its sticker price to attract students, was among the institutions concerned about the Edmit analysis. It did not capture recent improvements in enrollment and tuition revenue, according to Kelly Adams, a spokesman.
“We felt it created an inaccurate picture,” he said in an email. “To be clear, we believe in transparency about financial sustainability and have been very transparent with our own financial story.”
After Inside Higher Ed approached Utica about the analysis, a lawyer representing the college wrote a letter threatening legal action against the news organization and copying Edmit, Ducoff said.
Paul Fain, news editor of Inside Higher Ed, said the publication would have gone forward with its original plan — an article about the analysis and a link to the GitHub site — had Edmit made its findings public. Instead, Fain wrote an article about what Edmit had planned to release and the pressure colleges applied to stop it.
“To be clear, we definitely were willing to go ahead with our news coverage until they pulled it,” Fain said. “But it wasn’t our data. We agreed not to publish it on our own.”
The original plan was to publish the information on GitHub under the Edmit logo and an Inside Higher Ed banner, Fain reported. The data belonged to Edmit, Fain said, but “I felt like it was part of our news coverage and part of our responsibility to label it as such.”
It’s easy to understand why colleges might be nervous about being on a list of potentially imperiled institutions, Ducoff said. At the same time, he said, students and families deserve to have better information about where they’re spending their money.
“Everyone is looking at what harm this could cause colleges, whether this data should be available,” Ducoff said. “But what about students who were at the schools that closed?”
Editor’s Note: Fain is a former reporter for The Chronicle. Stripling is a former reporter for Inside Higher Ed.
Correction (11/22/2019, 6:16 p.m.): This article originally misidentified Kelly Adams as Utica College’s spokeswoman. He is the college’s spokesman. The article has been corrected accordingly.