The state Board of Higher Education took another step last week in the effort by state lawmakers over the past year to protect college students from being blindsided by the sudden closure of a Massachusetts college or university.

In November, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law requiring colleges and universities in the state to immediately notify the Board of Higher Education if they’re facing financial problems that could force them to close or mean they can’t otherwise meet obligations to the current or incoming students. This action by the board on Friday laid out the process the board will use to assess and monitor the schools seen as at risk of closing, as well as requiring closure planning and public notification if a closing is imminent. This is no small matter, with half a dozen small private schools in New England closing in the last six years and many others struggling to stay financially viable. And not every closure comes because of dire financial problems. In the last quarter of 2019, Emerson College in Boston announced it was taking over the property and endowment of Marlboro College in Vermont – which has about 200 students and 35 professors on a 400-acre campus – a move seen as strengthening Emerson but leaving many Marlboro students and faculty stunned. 

The need for the legislation – which, again, only applies to colleges and universities in Massachusetts – came into focus with the sudden closure of Mount Ida College in 2018, highlighting the precarious position of some other small schools in the region. Mount Ida wasn’t the only school that closed. The list includes Sanford Brown College, Le Cordon Bleu, ITT Technical Institutes, the New England College of Art, and Marian Court College in Swampscott. At least six more schools merged into larger institutions: the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England College of Acupuncture, the Boston Conservatory, Episcopal Divinity School, the National Graduate School of Quality Management and Wheelock College.

With approval of the new regulations on Friday, Board of Higher Ed Chairman Chris Gabrieli said the measure was a step in a “process to go from, frankly, surprise, shock and disappointment in an event to some approach that we think is the appropriate approach,” State House News Service reported.

The regulations apply to all 95 private higher education institutions in Massachusetts authorized to grant degrees, according to the Department of Higher Education.

The staff of the department will work with the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accreditor, to finalize a memorandum for the commission to conduct the annual screenings and share information with the Department of Higher Education.

Carlos Santiago, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said the board was looking for a “true partnership” with the New England Commission.

“Clearly there are a lot of eyes on what we’re doing because we have so many institutions that are being impacted by the current changes in enrollment that we’re seeing,” Santiago told State House News Service.

It all sounds very bureaucratic, but the process should mean regular assessments of the financial health of schools will give state regulators time to act, or at least to guide a more orderly – and less shocking – process for students to know their college or university was at risk or would close. If this process works for Massachusetts colleges and universities it would be wise for the other New England states to consider similar reviews so the reach – and protections – for students who venture out of state for education, are broadened.

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