How do we adjust when vital institutions close?

By Morton Marcus

In a world offering little comfort to small towns, joy came this past week to Crothersville. Located just off I-65, south of Seymour, north of Austin, Crothersville now is the proud home of the Tigers, 2017 girls basketball Class A sectional champions.

For 103 years, this Jackson County town of 1,600 waited for a sectional championship trophy.

Now, only 41 years since the first girls team began playing Indiana’s game, that trophy is displayed at the high school on North Preston Street.

From that site of joy, it is only 176 miles north on Interstate 65 to South College Avenue in Rensselaer (Jasper County) where a very different mood prevails. St. Joseph’s College will suspend operations after graduation ceremonies this semester. Continuing students are being offered opportunities at several other Indiana higher education venues.

The college is closing. Its buildings will be on caretaker status pending resolution by the board of trustees of the future direction for the institution.

Next fall, Rensselaer will not welcome approximately 1,000 students and the 200 faculty and staff who serve them.

College education has become increasingly expensive. Not just for parents and students, but for the institutions themselves. Not all colleges have the financial backing, the endowments and generous friends to survive.

Some analysts contend the college bubble is bursting and this event is an example of over-investment in education. Enrollments and the numbers of institutions show a decline.

Others see only a bump in the road caused by the Great Recession plus the readjustment of expectations as the marginal return to college investment declines.

Yes, over time, as the number of students seeking higher education rises, the gains are still there, but not as great as before. Adjustments in the market by suppliers (colleges) and consumers (students) are to be expected.

For Rensselaer, how is this (temporary?) closing of St. Joseph’s different from a manufacturing plant closing? There’s no Asian or Mexican competition involved, no trade pact to be cursed, no evil force to be feared. Without a tornado or a flood, Rensselaer cannot apply for emergency federal aid.

Yet there will be fewer pizzas sold in Rensselaer next year. Some housing off-campus will go unrented and some will be sold. The number of visiting parents and students will drop to zero and few alumni will show up to reminisce.

Residents of Rensselaer will find something missing, something the presence of the college provided beyond business and young strangers. Some ineffable connection between tradition and the future will be absent.

Indiana has not mastered the decline and vacancy in our lives when a tire plant closes in this town, an auto supplier is shuttered over there, a food processing operation ceases down the road. How are we to adjust to the closing of an institution that has defined our community for more than 100 years? Is anyone prepared to help?

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com