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The College Closure Apocalypse That Isn’t

By Derek Newton
Reposted from Forbes, with permission.

Several weeks ago, CNBC released a video segment asking, “Why more and more colleges are closing down across America.” It’s a refrain we’ve heard before, over and over again. More than four years ago, I wrote about a US News article called, “The Higher Education Apocalypse.”

As I wrote then, there was no apocalypse. The number of school closures simply did not support such a sensational finding. In fact, they showed little evidence at all to support a massive anything. And despite what CNBC and others say about “more and more colleges closing,” the numbers are still well short of conclusive about what’s happening – and they tell us even less about why.

Even now, the actual information on school closures does not necessarily support the idea that schools are closing in any major number. They also do not show that these closures have anything to do with a declining sense of the value of college or high tuition prices or student debt, as the headlines tell us.

Fortunately, Higher Ed Dive keeps a decent and ongoing list of college closures that’s reviewable. I’m not sure how dead-on accurate it is, but it is the source that CNBC and others use. So, it’s a good enough place to start. As a note, the Higher Ed Dive numbers don’t count for-profit colleges, which are closing rapidly. And it limits what it includes what it includes regarding public schools, which means the list is mostly of private, non-profit schools.

In my review of the numbers, I started counting in March 2020 – when the pandemic started its grip. Since many pundits said that Covid would finish off scores of colleges, it felt like a good place to draw a line.

Between March of 2020 and the most recent one, the list has 45 entries. That seems like a big number. And it is double the 22 that were on the list when I checked last, covering the period from 2016 to about March of 2019. At 45, that’s about one per month in this recent window – a good clip, but still nowhere near the massive closure rates that so many have been predicting for so long.

But, as was the case before, it’s not clear that even those 45 are actually closures. In one, a private school closed a branch campus, the school – St. Johns – remains fully open, serving more than 20,000 students.

In another case, a rather large school in Indianapolis was being operated as a joint venture by Purdue University and Indiana University. The schools decided to end their arrangement and operate two schools in the city. And even though the data said it would “omit certain consolidation activity among public institutions in which their footprints remained largely the same,” and even though what was one school is now two schools, it’s on the list as a closure.

Counted as closures too are instances in which a non-profit school was acquired by a public school or larger non-profit, operating thereafter as a branch or satellite campus. For students and teachers and the community, the only change is the name on the door. Different and significant, but maybe not a true closure in every case.

In 12 of the 45 listed closures, the actual details can’t really be counted as a school closure. In another 12, the details were a straightforward acquisition in which the institution structure or name changed but the “footprint” of the school remained unchanged. Together, that’s more than half of them.

And, as was the case in the round-up four years ago, a significant portion of the closed schools were obscenely small. One served just 80 students. Another had an enrollment of 74. A third served only 41 students. Twenty-eight of the 45 schools on the closure list had enrollments of 1,000 or fewer. A full dozen of them enrolled 400 students or fewer. That really small schools are closing seems like not news, and hardly supportive of the national trend story we’re being told.

Another few of the schools on the closure list were, it seems, never accredited or sanctioned to provide student loans or federal student aid. They were schools. And they did close. But counting them as evidence for what’s going on with “colleges” or “higher education” feels like a reach.

But the trend that does show up in the data – the story that no one is reporting on – is that more than half of the 45 schools on the closure list were religious schools – bible colleges, seminary schools, catholic schools. In total, 25 of the 45 had official religious affiliations or were actually run by religious organizations. That’s 56%.

On my tally from 2016 to 2019, same thing. More than half of the closures then too were religious schools.

Of course, the Venn diagram of these school groups overlap. A single closure can be of a very small, unaccredited bible college. And that did happen. But to belabor the point, I’m not sure that tells us much of anything about the status or future of higher education.

Given the actual data, maybe the trend is the collapse of religious schooling instead of the collapse of colleges overall. Maybe in most cases, the school closures we are seeing have more to do with religion and less to do with higher education. Maybe people aren’t rejecting college. Or at least maybe they’re rejecting religion even more.

That would make sense. We’ve seen a steady downward trend in Americans’ affinity for and affiliation with religion. Church attendance is down. Self-identified religiousness is down. That these trends would squeeze enrollments at religious schools or strain the budgets of their check-writing churches should not surprise.

When a Catholic church decides to merge two of its colleges into one and does not tell us why – as happened at least twice among the 45 reported closures – maybe we should not be so quick to assume the cause has much to do with tuition costs or magic market disruption.

At a minimum, we should not look at school closures as evidence of a broken system of higher education. If the data about the number of small schools and religious schools does not make that point, here are two specific examples from the new list of 45 closures that may.

In one, a school that closed had been profitable and growing when a cyber-attack blocked access to its marketing, recruitment, enrollment, and financial aid software – for several months. The school did not recover. It is a closure, yes. Because of high college costs? No. But it’s counted anyway.

In the other example, one school tried an infamous “tuition reset.” It closed. If market dynamics such as tuition were causally related to closure, a tuition reset should have worked. It didn’t. And yet even the “tuition reset” school is counted as evidence of cost and enrollment pressures sinking a school.

Moreover, this particular school was a women-only institution. Maybe that had more to do with its struggle than anything else. Yet some count its failure as evidence that tuition is too high, student debt is crushing, the value of a degree is falling, and that national enrollment is on the decline.

When you actually look at the data, it certainly seems as though those who have been inaccurately warning us about the catastrophic future of higher education will count any closure in their column, regardless of what or why.

At best, the real stories of recent college closures simply do not reasonably support any conclusion about the future of higher education at all. But that will not stop people from making them.

Corrected, Sept. 25, 2023: A previous version of this article indicated that the list of college closures published by Higher Ed Dive did not include public schools. It has been corrected to indicate that the list does include public schools, though with some limitations.

Originally posted on Forbes on September 18, 2023.