For-Profit McNally Smith College Suddenly Shuts Down: A Student’s View

December 22, 2017

“If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.”

This is Ana Hymson’s message for McNally Smith college officials. Hymson is, or was, one semester away from completing a bachelor’s degree in Music Production at McNally Smith. Just last week, the for-profit school announced it was shutting down, immediately. Staff and students were left scrambling for food (the cafeteria was suddenly closed), shelter (rumors were circulating that students will be locked out of dorms on Christmas Eve) and a paycheck (employees will not be paid this month for work already completed).

This is not a good holiday story, but it does reveal a lot about what it means to be “college and career ready” in today’s world. Ambitious kids, raised to believe that college degrees are their only way up and out, are increasingly being saddled with debt. Or worse–meaningless degrees. This is a problem of economics, marketing and false promises. (Other colleges have quickly stepped up to try to help McNally Smith students find a place to go, although they cannot, reportedly, promise that credits will transfer.)

For-profit colleges are dangerous, a fact McNally Smith’s president Harry Chalmiers acknowledged in a 2011 Op-Ed. McNally Smith was trying to become a nonprofit but couldn’t secure the funding to do so. The school was being dragged down by its students’ financial aid needs. Was it ethical to keep operating this fall? How will the founders of the school and its investors make out amidst the end-of-semester collapse of McNally Smith?

McNally Smith in more hopeful times

What happens to students burdened with debt for college credits they can’t put towards a degree? (A topic covered well in this brief podcast: What the 2016 Election Revealed About the Limits of “College for All.”)

The sudden closure of McNally Smith College of Music may leave students with few options for completing a degree because of the school’s weak accreditation.

Unlike public colleges and universities, which are regionally accredited, the St. Paul for-profit music school is nationally accredited. Transfer students historically have had little luck getting their new colleges to award credit for McNally Smith coursework.

–St. Paul Pioneer Press, “McNally Smith students might be stuck with credits that don’t transfer.” December 15, 2017

Ana Hymson is not sure what she will do next. She says she is an “outlier,” because she can’t drive and has relied on living just steps away from McNally Smith. She credits the school’s faculty and staff with “doing a great job” of helping students like her find ways to finish their degrees or otherwise move forward. So far, she says, she has not received a response to her email, which was addressed to the school’s founders, Jack McNally and Doug Smith.

Here is the text of her email:

Hello.

I am sure you have dozens of emails like this one in your inbox right now, but I am here to add another, regardless, in hopes that you will gain more insight into what exactly your decision has done.

I moved to Minnesota from Florida in 2015, fresh out of high school, to pursue an education at McNally Smith. I double majored in Music Production (Bachelor’s program, with a minor in Music Business) and Live Sound. I packed 7 semesters, almost 4 years of work (if not more, considering my enrollment in more than one program), into the past 2 years. I also held 2 student worker positions at the school, as a receptionist and as part of the live sound department.

I was one semester away from graduating with both degrees when I received the news on that the school was closing.

As of writing this, I am completely unsure if I will ever be able to finish my degrees anywhere, let alone at an institution that would not force me to uproot the entire life I have built here. My life has been turned on its head by one email. I have medical bills, rent, health insurance, and a long, long list of other things to pay for, and an even longer list of uncertainties to sort through in order to determine the course of the rest of my life. Yet still, I am in a better situation than many of my peers. None of us were given the courtesy of time to plan for this, the assurance that anyone thought about our futures before this decision was made, or the immediate provision of resources that would make this announcement anything more than a very expensive slap in the face.

The other student workers, the faculty, and the staff were tricked into working our jobs for the past 2 weeks for free. There is no other way in which that can or should be phrased. Some of us believe that we may actually receive compensation down the line, but more of us do not. Still, faculty, staff, and student workers have been on campus, taking and administering final exams, completing projects, making music.

More importantly, though, we have spent the past days sharing our resources, offering up our open couches to the students who will be homeless by the end of next week, bringing food and packing supplies to the residence hall students who relied on meal plans from a cafe that can no longer operate to eat their next meals, attempting to salvage some of our academic resources that we were assured lifelong access to before they are shut down for good. We are scrambling to build a structure that should have been built for us.

And we have not heard a word from either of you. The fact that Harry (Chalmiers) was made to be the mouthpiece for this has subjected him to judgement he does not deserve, considering everything he has done for us and how often he has shown us that he cares about us all.

The fact that I am unsure whether I will ever get a response to this email, or whether it will even be read in the first place, is upsetting. But if I am being heard, I want to know what you plan to do to help the students, staff, and faculty who have proudly worn your names on our shirts, and who have trusted you to do right by us. We all deserved to get this news earlier, but we have to settle for the answers and guidance we can get now, and we are hoping that they will come soon, even though they will come to us through hours upon hours of unpaid work done by our friends. If we mean anything more than our tuition to you, show us.

Ana Hymson

Best wishes to all McNally Smith students and staff as they navigate this sudden loss. Here’s hoping that a thorough investigation of the school’s demise will be done quickly.

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