The unexpected closure of Portland’s Concordia University is part of a disturbing trend that is limiting educational opportunities throughout the nation.
Officials at Concordia, a 115-year-old institution in Northeast Portland, announced this week that the school will abruptly close following commencement ceremonies on April 25. The university has about 1,300 undergraduate students and 500 graduate students on campus, along with several thousand who take classes online or off campus, but enrollment has declined in recent years.
Interim President Tom Ries said: “Trying to borrow more money when we really don’t have anybody that’s going to lend us any more money, taking a shot at trying to increase enrollment when we have limited resources to do that … those kinds of things where you’re really rolling the dice, and I think the board felt the odds were better to not do that and create even a worse situation.”
For students who have not completed their studies and are left seeking a new college, the turmoil is evident. But even for those who have graduated, the closure creates problems; suddenly, the value of a degree from Concordia is diminished.
In that regard, Concordia students are not unique. In 2018, education analyst Michael Horn wrote for Forbes.com: “Many colleges and universities are increasingly unable to bring in enough revenue to cover their costs.” He noted that small, private schools typically provide large tuition discounts that help them attract students but do not keep up with expenses. He quotes Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School as predicting that 50 percent of colleges and universities will go bankrupt over the next decade.
The plight of such colleges is the result of economics and disruptive technology. With large universities increasing online course offerings that allow them to accommodate essentially unlimited enrollment, small colleges have difficulty finding a niche that can lure students.
All of that reinforces the need for states to adequately fund and expand their public universities. Whether through private non-profit colleges or state-run universities, the economy depends on a well-trained, well-educated work force that can create and fill the jobs of the future.
Washington long has understood this, with an adequate work force attracting forward-thinking companies and helping them innovate and grow. There are several reasons Jeff Bezos chose Seattle as the site for Amazon, and one of them was the pool of local talent. The same can be said for Microsoft, which was started in New Mexico but soon moved to the hometown of founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
Maintaining strong public universities requires effective management on the part of legislators and college administrators. On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the first bill to come out of this year’s legislative session — an adjustment to the Washington College Grant program approved last year by lawmakers.
Last year’s plan to make public universities more affordable through expanded state grants, particularly for low- and middle-income students, quickly unraveled under the weight of economic reality. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, told The Seattle Times that the law “didn’t have a lot of time for development, either on the policy side or the funding side.”
That reflects a failure by legislators. With the closure of private schools increasing pressure on the marketplace for colleges, fiscal responsibility on the part of those who oversee public institutions is more essential than ever.