What the Mount St. Mary's controversy reveals about higher ed

Institutions struggle to balance business plans, mission

The ongoing issues at Mount St. Mary's University highlight a larger problem in the higher education industry, Lauren Camera reports for U.S. News & World Report.


Emails obtained by the student newspaper at Mount St. Mary's suggested President Simon Newman wanted to dismiss about 20 to 25 students in the first weeks of college to improve the institution's reported retention rates. Newman is quoted in emails as saying, "This one thing will boost our retention 4% to 5%."

Newman began at the Catholic school last year, bringing with him a background in business and consulting. He announced intentions to double the university's size within the decade by adding in-demand programs and cutting ones that lacked enough student interest.

More higher ed institutions recruiting leaders with business backgrounds

Subsequently, Newman asked for and received the resignation of the provost, and two professors—one of whom was tenured. Following protests by faculty and public, the terminations were rescinded.

A balance between business, academia

As colleges and universities face pressure to prove the return on investment in their degrees, many private, less-selective, expensive institutions struggle.

Changing demographics make this especially difficult, as a growing share of applicants are low-income and first-generation students who are not always as prepared for college as the more "traditional" applicant.

"I think part of it is that these smaller, less-selective, less-elite, but still highly expensive institutions are really going to have to find their niche to survive," says Rachel Fishman, senior education policy analyst at New America.

Mount St. Mary's accepts about 67% of applicants; charges $50,000 for tuition, fees, and room and board; and enrolls approximately 1,800 undergraduates. Its graduation rate of 58%, meanwhile, falls below the national average of 65% for nonprofit, private schools. And one of the reasons the board brought in Newman was to grow the school's $42 million endowment.

Newman says his retention plan comments were taken out of context and that he wants to implement the plan to save students who are unlikely to succeed at Mount St. Mary's from incurring student debt.

But experts say that's what the admissions process is for.

"I think it's important to remember that that office reviewed those applicants and admitted those students," says Fishman. "It said to those students, 'You are qualified to attend our institution.'"

Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at Center for American Progress, notes that colleges should be more honest with students about the student debt they may accumulate before acceptance letters go out.

And while many colleges are drawing leaders and business ideas from the finance industry, they need to be sure to keep a central higher education mission, Miller says.

"You want someone who cares about finances, but it seems like some of these people who come in don't know anything about academia (and propose) the tone-deaf stuff you see from Wall Street," Miller says (Camera, U.S. News & World Report, 2/12).

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