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2018 Higher Education Year In Review

The 2018 Year In Higher Education

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Photograph by Getty Images, illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News
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2018 Higher Education Year In Review

A discrimination case against Harvard University, a decline in international students and the abrupt shutdown of a small private college in Newton dominated developments involving higher education in the Boston area in 2018.

In a federal courtroom in Boston's Seaport for three weeks in October, Harvard was on trial. In the closely-watched case, the group suing Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions, argued that the college systematically discriminates by stereotyping Asian-American applicants as one-dimensional, shy and quiet.

Read more: Harvard Trial Kicks Off With Opening Statements, First Witness Testimony

After closing arguments, Harvard's lead lawyer, Bill Lee, pointed out that none of the Asian-Americans who claim they were unfairly denied admission took the stand.

“There’s no student file that’s before the court," Lee said. "If there were a file that showed discrimination, you would’ve seen it.”

The plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, Adam Mortara, said that should not make a difference in the outcome.

"This suit was about Harvard. It was about Harvard's treatment of Asian-Americans," Mortara said. "It doesn't need to be about any one particular student."

Now, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs is reviewing the evidence and is expected to issue her opinion in 2019. Whoever loses will likely appeal, and legal experts predict this case could ultimately reach the Supreme Court.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled on another case that indirectly affects college enrollment, upholding President Trump's travel ban.

Colleges like Boston University and Northeastern University that enroll large numbers of international students worry the decision is making it harder to recruit and retain them.

"We think that the travel ban is a crude instrument and one that sends the wrong signal," said Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, a group that represents colleges in Washington.

Mitchell argued the ban undermines students' ability to advance knowledge across borders.

"This travel ban, in combination with changes in visa application procedure, all contribute to this perception that American colleges and universities aren't welcoming places," he said.

Read more: Syrian Student Worries About Her Future At Northeastern

Overall, the number of new international students in the U.S. was down nearly 7 percent in the 2017-18 academic year from the year before, as colleges in countries such as Canada and Australia continue to siphon them away, according to a survey by Open Doors.

Another big higher-ed story in 2018 was the shaky finances of small private colleges.

In May, Mount Ida College in Newton closed abruptly, leaving hundreds of students in limbo.

In an emotional testimony before the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, Mount Ida students and their parents blamed administrators for the school’s sudden closure.

"Someone needs to be held accountable and do what's right for these students," said Lisa McClean, whose daughter was admitted to enroll this fall. McClean said Mount Ida administrators had told parents the college failed because it offered tuition discounts it couldn't afford.

"If this is the case, why are they being offered?" McClean said. "Why are you preying on our children, luring them to come to Mount Ida with this non-existent money?"

Read more: The State Board of Higher Education Is Still Dealing With The Fallout From The Closing Of Mount Ida College

In November, six months after Mount Ida shutdown, a group of students sued administrators and the board of trustees for fraud. In a Boston court, the plaintiffs are seeking class-action status and unspecified monetary damages.

One thing is clear: Tough times are ahead for small private colleges in the Northeast as the number of high school graduates dwindles.

Last week Brookline's Newbury College announced it will close after this academic year, citing "weighty financial challenges” and declining enrollment.

For the second year in a row, Moody's Investors Service has given higher education a negative credit outlook, predicting operating expenses will outpace revenue growth at most colleges.

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