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Saturday, January 21, 2023

What happens after the lights go out on a college campus?

The closing of Presentation College is a stunning development for higher education in the Aberdeen area.  Although its primary reason for being established was to train medical workers, it expanded its curriculum to give students a grounding in the arts and sciences.    During my time as a professor at Northern State, I had many interactions with staff at Presentation, who attended some of the same professional activities I did.  My ex-spouse taught a math class there.  From that experience, I recall that the college hired a dean who created dreadful turmoil among the staff.  He didn't last long, but his time on campus raised questions about what characteristics the college projected about itself.

At the time, I was an officer in the state universities' faculty union, and was asked to consult along with some other colleagues about personnel issues at Presentation.  When disagreements came up, there was no due process, and people would just get booted out the door.  There really was not enough faculty there to consider organizing, and most of the teaching seemed to be done by adjuncts.  Most of the faculty I knew were Catholic nuns.  Some former instructors had a bitter attitude toward Presentation, and one could hear a disparaging undercurrent circulating in the community.   Still, the college had some hard-working and effective staff members, too, who provided good educational experiences for students and bolstered the reputation of the institution.  It seemed to be holding its own.

However, we live in uncertain times for many institutions.  The Covid pandemic has jeopardized many institutions and left failures in its wake.  And the college-age population has diminished.  College officials are noting declining enrollments, rising expenses, and effects of the pandemic among the problems confronting them.   But other factors are at work, too:

Numerous factors challenging small private colleges existed before the pandemic. Pressures stemming from college costs, student price sensitivity and economies of scale in operations predate the crisis. So do declines in birth rates around the Great Recession that have long been predicted to drive down the overall number of high school graduates available to enroll in college in many parts of the country. 

The closing of a reputable college is tragedy.  It diminishes the community it served.  Colleges serve aspirations.  They are a means of realizing hopes.  They provide a means to leave a community, but they also provide the substance for building a community.   

A problem not addressed in the closing announcement of Presentation is what happens to the campus and its buildings after the college is shut down.   The college has some fairly new suite-style dormitories, which could be converted to apartments, but it also has an athletic dome and, of course, classrooms and laboratories.  What will happen to these facilities?

The press coverage of the circumstances of the closing is sparse.  It did point out that the college experienced enrollment growth to 625 students in 2020, but a decline when the pandemic stuck.  Last fall's enrollment was down to 517.   The news release from the college stated, “Its rural location, difficult for many out-of-state students to access, was already a known factor, along with a significant dependency on tuition revenue and gifts. The impact of COVID exacerbated the college’s challenges.”    The Best Colleges analysis points out that colleges show  "the telltale signs of stress [which] include lacking a national reputation, relying heavily on tuition income to fuel the school budget, discounting tuition above 40% to attract students, having a small endowment and significant debt, and lacking online programs to produce revenue."   This fits Presentation, except it does have online revenue from its single productive program.

Aberdeen seems not to be a good setting for a college.  Whereas Northern State in the past seemed to be a solid performer in attracting students, its attendance ranking among sister institutions is now lagging.  It has the least amount of full-time equivalent students of the state public colleges.

However, it does provide a perspective on Presentation's situation.  Tuition and fees at Northern is advertised at $8,845.  Presentation is cited at $22,006.

Money is clearly the problem behind Presentation's demise.  The remaining question is, what happens to a ghost campus?

An increasingly familiar sight across America are the abandoned shopping malls.  No one seems to know what can be done with them, except eventually demolish them.  What can you do with an abandoned college campus?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States