While concerns over student debt and college affordability continue to mount and rightly confound policymakers at all levels, another financial issue in higher education has developed that warrants our immediate attention and poses potential challenges here in Westchester.
Less than a decade ago, world-renowned Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen projected that as many as half of America’s institutions of higher learning would shutter or go bankrupt in the ensuing 10 to 15 years. Moody’s went a step further, forecasting in 2015 that small private college closures would triple and mergers into larger schools would double. Such fears are becoming reality, as 33 nonprofit colleges closed or stopped taking financial aid between the 2015 and 2016 school years.
I am proud to state that a majority of the 22 colleges that call Westchester home are members of The Business Council of Westchester. Many of them, small and private, are a foundational pillar of our community and make Westchester “New York’s Intellectual Capital.” These schools, which serve as a draw for local corporations, could soon find themselves in jeopardy and need our awareness and support.
Smaller, private schools are typically tuition-dependent and have modest endowments that provide limited resources to support college operations. In years of depressed enrollment, potentially compounded by the New York state Excelsior Program, this means little safety net exists to insulate such schools from financial duress. As they plan for the future, they must balance providing quality academic operations with offering the most financial aid possible — all while sufficiently investing in their facilities to remain competitive in attracting students.
Larger schools that seek the same students often have the luxury of drawing on more sizable endowment pools to enable plentiful financial assistance as they drive intensive campus improvement projects to ensure their students have access to state-of-the-art resources. But there is real value to communities in what smaller, private schools — much like many we have in Westchester — bring to the table.
Iona College, Manhattanville College and Sarah Lawrence College are some examples locally. These schools provide great educational experiences and bring social and cultural events to their local communities and neighbors. They also have athletic programs that enhance visibility and help unite communities. With all the benefits our local colleges offer to neighbors, we must find ways to demonstrate our support.
Sarah Lawrence overcame challenges in recent years through partnership with its neighbors to break ground on a new campus and community center only last month. Iona currently seeks to renovate and expand its business school facility — one of the school’s two main academic units — which was originally built nearly 70 years ago. It is incumbent on us to build on recent momentum to keep local mainstays prosperous.
More than 170 businesses have chosen to establish their headquarters in Westchester, in large part due to our highly educated residents — 47 percent of whom have at least a bachelor’s degree, above the national average (among adults 25 or older) of 33.4 percent — as well as our strong applicant pool supported by Westchester colleges.
To maintain this prestige, our local municipal governments and the larger community must find ways to better partner with and support these schools. It is incumbent upon each of us to ensure our mutually beneficial relationships endure, and our communities thrive.
Westchester will be stronger as a result and will continue to attract our country’s top businesses and top academic minds through the long-term success of higher education in the community.
John Ravitz is the executive vice president and chief operating officer of The Business Council of Westchester. He can be reached at JRavitz@thebcw.org.