Bloomfield Pulls the Goalie | Confessions of a Community College Dean

Back when I followed hockey, I was fascinated by the tactic of pulling the goalie. At the time — and I haven’t followed hockey in decades, so I don’t know if this is still true — a team that was behind late in the game could remove its goalie and substitute another player on offense. The idea was that losing by two is really no worse than losing by one, but adding another player on offense increases the chances of scoring.

It’s a desperation move, but it can work.

New Jersey’s own Bloomfield College did the equivalent of pulling the goalie this semester. In so doing, it’s challenging some widely held beliefs in the industry.

Bloomfield announced last week that it may not have enough money to last beyond this academic year unless it gets substantial outside help, whether from a merger or some sort of benefactor.

That’s very unusual.

The typical fear in announcing financial troubles is that a distress signal will become a self-fulfilling prophecy: students who are looking at colleges for next year might steer clear of a school that may not exist in a year. (That’s more plausible than one might think; the local press in N.J. has covered the story pretty extensively.) Enrolled students who aren’t already in their senior year might transfer out on the theory that they’d rather choose where to go than be shunted into some sort of third-party teach-out. Given that the financial difficulties are largely due to declining enrollment, the theory goes, giving students reasons to bail or look elsewhere will only make matters worse. Accordingly, many colleges in financial trouble wait until the last possible moment. Some for-profits have been known to close midsemester, abruptly locking doors with less than 24 hours’ notice.

From an accreditation perspective, the incentives are murky. One of the standards that regional accreditors typically apply — and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education is no different — is the adequacy of an institution’s resources to fulfill its mission. Failing that standard can lead to loss of accreditation, which brings with it loss of access to federal financial aid and the potential loss of transferability of credits. It’s a likely death sentence.

On the other hand, there’s a valid public policy argument for greater transparency about institutional finances. The New England states in particular have dealt with college closures over the last few years and have tried to force some level of transparency in the name of protecting students, employees and communities.

The usual institutional playbook is to scramble to make up gaps until it’s far too late. From the perspective of a single institution, that’s usually a rational response to incentives. Buying time for a strategy to take effect, or for a savior to come along, can work. It’s always possible that next year’s class will come in bigger, or a big donor will come along, or a beneficial merger can be worked out in time. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the external environment can change dramatically in a very short time.

Bloomfield is apparently testing the opposite strategy. It has chosen transparency, letting the world know that it may not survive another year. It’s openly looking for a savior or a partner and gambling that giving up on defense — pulling the goalie — will increase the chances of a score.

It might. And honestly, I wish it well.

I don’t know if Bloomfield’s gambit will work, but I have to salute President Marcheta Evans’s courage. She’s choosing transparency. I hope for everyone’s sake that it results in a big score.

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