In a higher education environment beset by political controversies, dwindling public trust, soaring costs, and increasing competition from alternatives to college, some schools are struggling to survive.
Earlier this year, that Moody’s Investor Service announced 11 private colleges a year are closing on average (a number expected to rise), due to major gaps between operating revenue and expenses. When factoring in for-profit schools – a struggling sector hit hard by recent regulations to rein in malfeasance in the industry – more than 100 have closed since 2016.
While those colleges aren’t coming back to life, Chinese education companies may revive some campuses, running the purchased schools as new administrators, or creating all new institutions.
In March Bloomberg reported Chinese companies have purchased at least four campuses since 2015. Chinese companies already have purchased Bay State College in Boston, Dowling College in New York, Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire, and Chester College of New England.
A sale for Westminster Choir College in New Jersey is pending.
But as Chinese companies buy colleges that remain open, they’re encountering resistance from American faculty and staff uncomfortable with the idea of being under the thumb of the Chinese government. In the case of Westminster, several lawsuits seek to block the sale of the college.
“This American college will be taken over by a corporation that is owned and controlled by the government of China, which does not recognize any degree of academic freedom and which has a state policy subordinating colleges to governmental and Communist Party principles. It is diametrically contrary to the understanding of an American institution of higher education,” Bruce Afran, a lawyer representing plaintiff in one suit to block the sale of Westminster, told Inside Higher Ed.
But proponents of the sale of the choir college are striking a different tune.
Larry Livingston, who represents the Chinese interests in the sale, told IHE such claims are laughable.
“That claim, along with the assertion that this is a ‘national security threat,’ are just scare tactics by opponents of the plan to save Westminster. The nonprofit corporation that will run Westminster will do so in accordance with all applicable U.S. laws and regulations; that includes maintaining academic freedom,” Livingston said in a statement reported by the trade publication.
While Beijing Kaiwen Education Technology Company – the company attempting to finalize the purchase of Westminster – has made clear that it wishes to keep the mission of the music college alive, the fate of other campuses purchased by Chinese companies is less clear.
When Xinhua Education Investment Corporation purchased the closed campus of St. Paul’s College in December, the Mecklenburg Sun reported that local officials were “in the dark” about its future.
The same rings true for Daniel Webster in New Hampshire. Almost a year after it was sold to what a local newspaper described as “an undisclosed Chinese university” the campus remains empty.
“What I know is limited. I wouldn’t term it a mystery, but I am reserved in watching this unfold because it has been slow moving,” Tim Cummings, local economic development director, told the Union Leader.
Chester College, sold in 2015, already has been revived Busche Academy, a Chinese boarding school.
“We find that particularly with boarding schools, it’s too competitive,” Hamilton Gregg, an American education consultant working in Beijing told the Boston Globe in 2016. “Their families are looking to go [to the United States] no matter what.”
Whether a boarding school, a music college, or a mystery project, some experts believe Chinese companies will continue to purchase shuttered or struggling U.S. colleges in the future.
“Absolutely you will see more of these,” educational consultant Kent John Chabotar told Bloomberg. “It’s the only way some of these places will survive.”
By Josh Moody