Rankings matter. They can tell you which institutions are thriving and which are dying. Colonial Williamsburg is dying (see Robert Brauchle’s 2017 articles on The CWF in The Virginia Gazette). The College of William and Mary is on the same track (both institutions share the same trustees).
The college recently plunged eight points in the latest U.S. News College Rankings — from 32 to 38 — while the Law School fell 12 points — from 25 to 37. William and Mary Provost Halleran made the usual excuses for poor performance, and many people fall for this argument. But no one can deny the fact that W&M hasn’t been keeping up with its public and private peers when it comes to the endowment and financial aid.
The college’s endowment is still less than $1 billion when it should have been $3.5 billion by now; no Top 25 university has an endowment less than that. Unfortunately, the college has wasted precious time during the past 30-plus years focusing on niche agendas that don’t add academic or economic value to the school. This is mostly a failure of an oversized Board of Visitors composed of political appointees with little to no experience with organizational (human) dynamics or financial ones.
According to Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, there are about 4,000 nonprofit colleges and universities in this country, and half are bound for bankruptcy by 2050.
Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody's Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple and mergers will double.
In the past five years, 51 American nonprofit colleges and universities, both public and private, have closed or merged at an average rate of 10 per year, leaving 3,861 nonprofit schools. Incidentally, five American law schools closed in 2017 (Charlotte, Valparaiso, Whittier, etc.) bringing total ABA-accredited law schools down from 209 to 204.
Most students understand the importance of the U.S. News College and Graduate School rankings, although not enough Sweet Briar alumnae were reading them apparently. They understand that rankings, endowment, applicant quality, job opportunities and institutional viability are correlated and a proxy for risk.
William and Mary’s sub-par endowment creates a sub-par ranking which leads to a higher risk of institutional failure. Right now, William and Mary’s financial failure probability is about 20 percent, but this will increase to 30 percent if William and Mary falls another 12 points to number 50 in the rankings in coming years.
Alumni and donors need to pay attention to these rankings because they could soon find their diploma value and endowed chairs at risk. Donors to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation could have used a ranking to find out earlier that their charity was being squandered by incompetent board members and presidents. So could the former donors to The Corcoran in Washington, D.C.
Lance B. Kyle