When Colleges Close: A Historical Sketch

Last Friday afternoon I posted the following graph, promising that I’d come back to it this week:

Closed colleges since 1900

Let me pick up by reiterating that “institutions of higher learning” includes everything from Research I universities to “colleges in name only” and lots of post-secondary diversity in between. I didn’t have the time to code things so that I could compare just how many of each type show up on the graph above (perhaps someone else is so inclined…?), but my sense from having stared at these data for a few hours is that the vast majority of schools that have closed since 1900 belong to the following categories:

  • Junior colleges and community colleges
  • Normal schools and teachers colleges
  • Fundamentalist and Pentecostal Bible colleges and small Catholic colleges and seminaries
  • Medical, nursing, dental, and similar professional schools that existed independent of universities
  • For-profit schools — historically, proprietary business colleges

Least common on the list are campuses of land-grant universities (with rare exceptions like the University of Minnesota’s Waseca campus, a one-time agricultural school that served as a two-year technical college from 1971 to 1992). On the contrary, they have grown by swallowing some of the other types of schools.

There are enough ruins of private four-year liberal arts colleges dotting the landscape that folks in my employment situation shouldn’t feel too comfortable. But those are still relatively rare on the list, with most affiliated with Catholic teaching orders, or mainline denominations that have merged or consolidated over time. Of course, if there is a higher education bubble about to burst, then the pattern of closures might look very different for the 2010s and 2020s than it did for earlier decades. More on that to come…

On Friday Mark Cheathem wisely suggested that it might be helpful to put these numbers in context, by showing how many such institutions were open in each decade. Here’s that graph: (number of colleges open at decade’s start from the National Center for Education Statistics’ 1993 publication, 120 Years of American Education — up through 1970s — and the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the U.S. Census — for 1980s and after)

American institutions of higher education since 1900

Then all that turned into closure rates (i.e., the share of schools that started the decade but didn’t finish it):

1900s

1910s

1920s

1930s

1940s

1950s

13.8%

15.9%

10.1%

6.7%

3.9%

3.6%

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

since 2000

 

5.0%

8.3%

2.9%

3.3%

1.6%

This is helpful in several ways.

First, it underscores that it’s a relatively rare thing for a college, university, seminary, law school, or other institution of higher learning to close in the 20th and (so far) 21st centuries. Moreover, the 1200+ closures and mergers have done little to slow the expansion of higher education since 1900. (Again, that’s not to say that we won’t witness a dramatic change if, say, American families simply decide that a bachelor’s degree isn’t worth anything like what it now costs, or if a technological innovation like the MOOC destroys the business model for all but the largest, wealthiest, or most unique schools.)

And even those that did fail typically held out for a long time. For schools that have closed since World War II, the average lifespan varies little by decade: from a low of 64 (1950s) to a high of 69 (1990s).

But within the larger picture of overall good health, there are some dramatic exceptions. The table reveals that the first three decades of the 20th century were even more turbulent than Friday’s graph indicates. There were only about a quarter as many institutions open as in the present day, and at best, they had a one in ten chance of closing over the course of a decade. You might expect the closure rate in the years of the Great Depression to be higher, but perhaps the most financially precarious schools had already closed in the preceding 10-30 years. And despite the Depression, the American college and university student population was in the middle of a remarkable surge: it increased fivefold between the two world wars. (Perhaps it’s the high closure rate of the Roaring Twenties that’s the true surprise…)

Quonset village at Michigan State
Quonset huts proliferated as universities like Michigan State (here’s an aerial view of its “Quonset Village”) struggled to accommodate new students, including veterans with families – Michigan State University Archives

The growth and relative stability of the Forties and Fifties was surely primed by the G.I. Bill (just the beginning of a massive investment in education by the federal government and state governments like those in California and New York) and postwar prosperity, and then the demographic effects of the Baby Boom helped carry the sector in the Sixties. (Enrollment went up 80% in the 1940s alone and then more than doubled between 1960 and 1970, from 3.6 million to almost eight.) But there was much concern that something like a bubble was about to burst, that America simply had too many colleges and universities. As historian Frederick Rudolph put it, “For the first time in history, American institutions of higher learning experienced prosperity and called it a problem” (The American College and University: A History, p. 485).

Sure enough, as many institutions closed in the 1970s as in the previous quarter-century all together (even if an 8% closure rate doesn’t seem quite as dramatic as what had happened earlier in the century). Here are the states with the most closures in the 1970s:

  1. New York: 24
  2. Wisconsin: 19
  3. Massachusetts: 16
  4. Illinois: 12
  5. California and Maryland: 10 each

In part, it was that certain types of schools (e.g., women’s colleges, independent medical and nursing schools) were being rendered obsolete, with those effects sometimes being realized within a relatively short period of time (e.g., most of Wisconsin‘s system of county teachers colleges disappeared in 1971-1972, with a few having already closed at the end of the 1960s). But it’s also worth noting just how many of the schools that closed in the Seventies had only been open for a short period of time, suggesting that many had been founded during the boom postwar years, had unsustainable growth, and then gone bust.

Lifespans of closed colleges, since 1945

Plotting each school by year closed (X-axis) and its lifespan (Y-axis), this scattergraph is too diffuse to be terribly helpful, but it does hint that, in the decades following WWII, there was a relatively high number of young schools that failed early in their lives as the economy declined, costs rose, competition mounted, etc. Here I should clarify that the lifespan figure I gave earlier — e.g., 64 years for schools that closed in the 1950s, 65 for those in the Sixties, and 66 for those in the Seventies — was an average. The median is quite different: 38.5, 40, and 48 for those three decades, before jumping nearly twenty years for those to have shuttered in the 1980s.

Indeed, 36% of institutions that closed between 1950 and 1979 had opened in 1945 or later.

But of closures since 1980 almost the same share (37%) is accounted for by colleges that opened before 1910. In the next post in this brief series, we’ll look at the most recent closures.

<<Read the first entry in this series                Read the final post in this series>>


9 thoughts on “When Colleges Close: A Historical Sketch

  1. I find it interesting and sad to realize that both the post-high school, one year Bible college I attended AND the nursing school I graduated from (after the Bible college) have closed their doors. Both programs had long histories and at the time did not seem to see their future looming.
    I found the added data of how many schools were open to be very helpful in putting closures in perspective. Thanks.

  2. Another interesting bit of info is that the various agencies that are supposed to keep track of college/university closings don’t always do the best job of it for one reason or another. You’d think this wouldn’t be a huge issue, but there was some reporting on this back in the early 2000’s looking at schools that had closed but the State Department hadn’t been informed and there was some concern of people using faked acceptance letters to enter the US on student visas that they didn’t deserve. You can see where there was some concern.

    1. I appreciate your comment and want to underscore that this is a much bigger issue than most people realize. I get requests every week for assistance in finding academic records of schools that have closed and it has become more frequent in recent years. I’ve noticed people losing track of schools with the wave of acquisitions and re-brandings among for-profit institutions…and, there are some older folks who lost jobs during the economic downturn and are trying desperately to track down academic records at schools that closed years ago.

      States vary in how seriously they take their responsibilities to maintain records, but even in states that try, there may be two or three agencies looking out for different sectors and operating separately. It can be hard enough for someone with a long history in higher ed to figure out who to contact and it is particularly frustrating for those who were first generation students, particularly if they’ve moved across country and have been working for 30-40 years since they completed their training.

  3. Very cool discussion. I’m in the process of researching the history of my defunct alma-mater, Grahm Junior College. My interests are focused on the 2-year schools, most especially the private/proprietary, in the period of the 1970’s when my school closed. I will posit that our school in particular was a victim of a “perfect storm”. External factors included simultaneous events of the end of the Vietnam war-era draft, a recession (actually a slightly positive effect), double-digit inflation, depressed real estate market, too many schools, huge variability in state and federal aid to private institutions, the energy crisis the insurgence of community colleges, and an over-capacity of college seats. Internally, these schools suffered from lack of competent financial management. Solving through expansion no longer worked. Burdensome fixed assists. The “stovepipe mentality” – the belief the school needed to own the entire “ecosystem”, which resulted in inefficiencies, duplication and lack of resources was a nearly impossible feat. My school in particular, made the rare leap to a residential school, which sucked up much operating cash.

    One could argue that all of the above just accelerated a school’s decline, it may have provided enough time to build a new strategy. These problems were well known and publicized in the early 70’s. Due to the had-to-mouth financial operation of the schools, there was little time to think strategically.
    I’d be like to research how those two year schools that survived did so. Some did so by merging, some did so by focusing their curriculum into a niche.

    One Petri-dish worth examining was an informal collective of about a dozen schools in the Worcester, Massachusetts . They collaborated to leverage their collective buying power to obtain supplies, equipment and fuel. Share what they do have – athletic fields, equipment, create joint shuttle services, allow students to cross-enroll in courses not offered by their own school. At some point I’d like to research how it worked out for them, how many remained.

    Great blog.

  4. I pondered these thoughts on a 10 mile hike yesterday. Being lost in the woods has a way of bringing clarity to mind!

    Anyways, from what my investigation so far is pointing to is that as indicated above, there are a) too many schools and b) unsustainable growth. So this leads me back to competition. I am going to posit that much of this competition is regional perhaps even local. It’s probably fair to say that we don’t have any examples of national schools going belly up.

    The second characteristic bearing exploration is whether the schools are in a niche market. Let’s hypothesize for a moment and take Los Angeles. It’s likely we’ve got several school with performing arts or filmmaking programs. It would be interesting to see heavily biased the enrollment is toward Hollywood careers in general.

    Finally, with the exception of the most elite of the small schools, would it not be fair to say the smaller the school, the more local the focus?

  5. Nearly 3 years later, I landed on this article while preparing for my proposal defense. Sweet Briar and Dowling hit the news recently as they each took drastic measures to stave off closure. Thanks for the awesome data above! I am studying the small institutions that are innovating and evolving through the lens of systems thinking and, specifically, using the work of Erich Jantsch’s predictions in 1969. If we look at your first chart above, 1970 was another big time period for closures. Jantsch predicted that institutions would have to evolve to meet the new demands of society or risk closing. I am now taking his predictions and applying them 50 years later during another major time period of closures. Interesting…

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