September 2, 2014
There but for the grace of God go many of us.
A small college, Lebanon College, in New Hampshire abruptly cancelled all of its fall classes six days before the fall semester. Despite the accompanying article’s headline, the president doesn’t seem to want to completely admit that this means the institution closes (he calls it “the first step towards closing” Lebanon College). Not sure what the hesitation would be when you have 53 full-time students, of which only 18 are new. You can have the best retention initiatives in the world, but there isn’t sustainable growth in that model.
I can’t even imagine the angst. If we cancel a class within a week of a semester beginning, there is a pack of wolves (even with only 2 students, the mama wolves make the pack bigger) outside of my office ready to complain. How big would Lebanon’s classes have been if they even tried to run them? Everyone today wants to promise small class size, but this is ridiculous.
More amazingly, the programs that Lebanon thought would pull them through, in the Allied Health field, are usually a pretty safe venue to project enrollment. Perhaps not enough of the students they tried to attract wanted to pursue a non-nursing degree.
The downward trend of the college is shocking, with this article from the Boston Globe citing that it had about 1000 students in the 1980s, 500 students around the turn of the century, and 150 students in 2012. How does one turn around such precipitous decline?
Higher education has been criticized as becoming too much like a business model, and in some ways the facilities of Lebanon appear to reflect that. Its main campus was an old Woolworth’s building, with a more recent (2008) $750,000 purchase of a former Shoetorium (yes, you read that right) in the local mall. (I wonder if they get Al Bundy from the shoe store to coach their football team.) This kind of store front purchasing in retail areas was a model in the 1980’s and 1990’s, especially for some not-for-profits trying to carve into a market share.
Yes, Lebanon was a non-profit institution. That's probably eyebrow raising to anyone reading this from afar. In addition, they aren’t alone in their failed strategies or their plights. More and more institutions are going to go under because of far-reaching acquisition or growth strategies that the higher education market can’t sustain. The high school populations across the country decline; the displaced workers have gotten their degrees or gone back to work. Add to that the government being very stingy with appropriations for public institutions or with financial aid to "shady" institutions or programs. All of us are fighting for every individual student and, sadly, places like Lebanon will suffer from the competition.
The sad part of this is that people, leadership, share much blame for these kinds of failed strategies. It certainly sounds like President Biron, only there since 2012, was named captain of a sinking ship (the Lebanotania, perhaps?). One has to assume some serious lack of leadership existed (such a paradoxical sentence) in the 1990’s. While Biron's name appears with the obituary-like headlines, someone else owns the blame. The Lebanon community probably knows who that is, but the rest of us don’t. Those former Lebanon leaders MAY (I truly am speculating here) have moved on to other institutions. God help us all.
I hope all of us truly value the reference check.
In 1984, The Human League released a song called “The Lebanon.” In the bridge, they sing “I must be dreaming/it can’t be true.” I am sure no one at Lebanon College at that time of its enrollment peak could ever have predicted those lines would ring true for them.
* with apologies to the Thievery Corporation