I don’t often do posts like this, but it’s Friday afternoon and I’m out of steam… Let me just frame and pose a question, show some data, invite comments, and then come back to the subject next week.
If you haven’t heard, my place of employment is going through a fairly significant financial crisis. Still, we’ve been reassured by leadership several times that things aren’t so bad that we’re going to close our doors anytime soon. And I’m pretty sure that’s right: even by the least kind measure, we’re pretty comfortably among the top 20-30% of four-year colleges in the United States.
We have a low endowment, have accumulated debt for new buildings (and have other renovations and expansions that can’t be put off too much longer), are highly tuition-dependent, and draw primarily from a demographic that’s not exactly exploding (evangelicals in the Upper Midwest). And there’s that looming specter of the entire higher education “bubble” bursting.
Then the New York Times goes and prints something like this, to further depress my spirits:
A handful of colleges have closed, merged or been bought by for-profit colleges in recent years — mostly small, tuition-dependent private colleges, which remain at most risk. While few financial experts foresee mass closings in the years ahead, only 500 or so of the 4,000-plus colleges and universities in the United States seem to have stable enough finances to be truly safe. The remaining colleges, where a vast majority of Americans attend, can no longer hold off the technological, demographic and economic forces quickly bearing down on them.
One-third of all colleges and universities in the United States face financial statements significantly weaker than before the recession and, according to an analysis released last July, are on an unsustainable fiscal path. Another quarter find themselves at serious risk of joining them.
Being a historian, that got me thinking: rather than face into an uncertain future in which my career might disappear, why not turn back to the past? Just how common is it for colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning to close? Has this happened at a fairly steady pace, or have certain eras seen more attrition than others? Has the rate of closures picked up recently?
As it happens, Ray Brown of Westminster College (MO) maintains a website that lists every such institution (including colleges “in name only”) that has closed, merged, or changed its name. (I stumbled across Ray when he was kind enough to link to a post of mine on his blog, College History Garden — he curates a fascinating collection of books, articles, images, and other sources from the history of higher education.) So I went through and added up how many colleges, universities, seminaries, law schools, and other professional schools had closed in each decade going back to the 1900s. (It’s a rough count: there’s probably some duplication, especially with mergers.)
So, take a look, chew on it, and feel free to share your observations and theories in the Comments section. Then I’ll return with some historical perspective next week.