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Northland College leaders say campus will remain open

College leaders say they will reduce student and faculty positions and restructure operations amid a financial shortfall

Northland College
An aerial view of the Northland College campus on Oct. 9, 2019. Photo courtesy of Northland College

Northland College in Ashland announced Wednesday it will remain open after restructuring its curriculum and operations to keep the campus going beyond the academic year.

Six weeks ago, college leaders said the campus needed to raise $12 million by April 3 to avoid closing its doors due to insufficient resources to continue operations. A day after that deadline, the college declared a financial emergency and last-minute efforts to retool its curriculum and operations after drawing in around $1.5 million

In a statement, Northland College Board of Trustees Chair Ted Bristol said he’s pleased the college has found a sustainable path forward.

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“An extraordinary collaborative effort with faculty and staff to reprioritize and restructure, combined with historic-level, transformative donor gifts, made it possible,” Bristol said.

Angela Stroud, associate professor of sociology at Northland, told WPR it’s great news the college will remain open.

“It’s super important for the students, for faculty, for staff and the whole region,” Stroud said. “We know that there are going to be cuts. We shrunk our curriculum significantly to match a smaller student body.”

Stroud said Northland’s target enrollment will be around 400 students, down from about 500 in 2022. It will have around 29 faculty — down from about 43. 

The college is moving forward with eight majors that will focus on natural resources, business, education, biology, psychology, social sciences, Earth studies, environmental humanities and sustainable community development. Stroud said that’s reduced from more than 30 majors that are currently offered. Northland’s intercollegiate athletics program will also continue.

The changes are expected to result in about $7 million in savings, according to the college. Northland’s Board of Trustees also raised another several million dollars on top of previous donations that will help address the college’s financial deficit.

The college had twice delayed a decision on its future prior to Wednesday’s announcement. Northland officials had been exploring changes to programs, staffing levels and its budget to avoid closure.

Northland College
A view of the Northland campus on Aug. 28, 2023. Photo courtesy of Northland College.

In recent weeks, staff and faculty had worked with community members to draft a plan to increase revenue, decrease expenses and expand the reach of the school.

The initiative, dubbed True Northland, proposed cutting employees, reducing student enrollment and generating revenue by renting out residential halls and office space.  Bristol said the board reviewed all ideas that included the proposal submitted by faculty, saying ideas were refined and checked against the budget.

“Many colleges like Northland are being forced to make difficult decisions and we’ve seen many closures in recent years—even in recent weeks,” Bristol said in a statement. “We feel fortunate to be sharing a path forward despite the realities of declining enrollment and rising costs.”

Northland College President Chad Dayton said in a statement that the college is staying open due to work by faculty and staff.

“Every step of this process and each decision has been made with the goal of maintaining Northland’s mission for as many students as possible,” Dayton said. “The Board and leadership thoroughly explored all options, proposals and ideas, and were thoughtful and intentional with every choice made.”

The college is among campuses across the country that have struggled in the face of declining enrollment and rising costs. National education statistics show the number of students dropped from a high of nearly 600 to roughly 500 students in the past decade. The board’s chair has said the board’s ability to raise enough money to close a gap in funding has grown out of their reach. 

Northland College
Northland students gather on the shore of Lake Superior on June 15, 2022. Phot courtesy of Northland College

Tax filings show the school has been operating in the red since 2016, reporting a loss of nearly $3.2 million by mid-2022. Declining enrollment and increased costs forced the college to rely on its endowment to support operations, which declined from a high of roughly $25 million in 2015 to $6.2 million in 2022. Northland’s president has said they could no longer rely on the college’s endowment to fill budget shortfalls.

The college had approved contracts with other schools that would allow students to finish their studies elsewhere, including at the College of the Atlantic in Maine and Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

“Time will tell what this whole fiasco has done in terms of the student population,” Stroud said. “It’s really hard to say what that’s going to be. I hope it’s as many as want to be here, but I think a lot of trust was broken.”

Current and former Northland students have said they were caught off-guard by the college’s dire financial straits. They formed their own fundraising appeals in an effort to raise money to keep the college from closing.

Stroud, who is running for 73th Assembly District, said she doesn’t think she’ll be around at the college much longer. She said there should be accountability for all involved and changes at the board level. The college is the only four-year higher education institution in the Ashland area, which has served the region for 132 years.