When Colleges Close: Recent History

Pillsbury State Bible College
Pillsbury State Bible College in Owatonna, MN (opened 1877, closed 2008) – Creative Commons (Bobak Ha’Eri)

In last week’s historical sketch of the closures of American colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning, I closed by noting an oddly symmetrical pair of statistics:

  • Of schools that closed between 1950 and 1979, 36% opened before 1945
  • Of schools that have closed since 1980, 37% opened before 1910

Much of the attrition of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies seemed to reflect the winnowing of a field that had grown too flush too fast, fueled by the postwar era’s demographic changes and expansion of state and federal investment in higher education. While 8% of colleges that were open in 1970 had closed by the end of 1979, older, well-established schools were rarely affected unless they were of a type — e.g., teachers colleges — that had grown obsolete.

And in more recent history, there are plenty of closed colleges with short lifespans. Just of the schools that have closed from 2000 on, at least eight were open a decade or less. (It could be more: the data I’m using don’t always include the date an institution opened.)

Institution

Founded

Closed

Lifespan

Founders College (VA)

2007

2008

1

Lake College (CA)

2005

2009

4

Si Tanka Huron (SD)

2001

2005

4

Arizona International College (AZ)

1996

2001

5

Goshen College-Florida

1998

2005

7

British-American University (CA)

1998

2006

8

President’s College School of Law (KS)

1994

2003

9

Southern Catholic College (GA)

2000

2010

10

(While many of the most recent closures are fundamentalist and Pentecostal Bible colleges and small Catholic schools, it was interesting — as someone who mostly researches evangelical liberal arts colleges — to see that the only CCCU-related closure was that of Goshen College’s short-lived campus in Sarasota, Florida. The original campus in Indiana remains open, with Goshen doing well on most ratings.)

But what’s most striking is the relatively high number of well-established schools that have closed recently. Of the closures from the first decade-plus of the 21st century, as high as a third had been open for at least 100 years: (not counting the schools for which I don’t have opening dates)

Institution

Founded

Closed

Lifespan

Bradford College (MA)

1803

2000

197

Lambuth University (TN)

1843

2011

168

Kemper Military School Junior College (MO)

1844

2002

158

Barat College (IL)

1858

2005

147

Mid-State College (ME)

1867

2003

136

Pillsbury Baptist Bible College (MN)

1877

2008

131

Southeastern University (DC)

1879

2009

130

Sheldon Jackson College (AK)

1878

2007

129

Dana College (NE)

1884

2010

126

Wood College (MS)

1886

2003

117

McIntosh College (NH)

1896

2009

113

Mary Holmes College (MS)

1892

2003

111

Biscayne Southern College (NC)

1892

2002

110

Huron University (SD)

1897

2001

104

Sparks College (IL)

1908

2009

101

Georgia Baptist College of Nursing (GA)

1901

2001

100

Now, none of these is especially well-known outside of its region, alumni group, etc. But for those of us who work at private four-year colleges, it is unsettling to see how many long-lived schools of that type have expired of late, most even before the Great Recession and explosion of MOOCs got talk of a burst bubble bubbling. A few of their stories:

Bradford Academy
Bradford Academy at the turn of the 20th century – Wikimedia

• The oldest, Bradford College of Haverhill, Massachusetts, had been a four-year college since 1971 — the same year it returned to its original coeducational mission after having been a women’s secondary school and then junior college for 135 years. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported (in the cover story of its May 12, 2000 issue), Bradford was never able to grow above 550 students, despite having discount rates of 50-60% in its last years. Concluded the Chronicle report, “administrators borrowed money based on what now appear to be overly optimistic enrollment predictions. What’s more, Bradford has not had a clear marketing approach for a decade. It tried to weld together a hodgepodge of appeals to different constituencies: arts students, international students, students with learning disabilities, students wanting a small institution that offers individual attention. But it never fully embraced any of those identities.”

Lambuth University had also been a women’s school for decades, before going coed in the 1920s. Long a four-year liberal arts college, it was acquired by the nearby University of Memphis after losing its accreditation and seeing enrollment drop to just over 400 students. At one point, it was also suggested that Union University might acquire the campus, which some alumni of the Methodist school seemed to prefer, according to a Memphis newspaper report: “They expressed the desire that the campus continue its spiritual heritage, not just its academic history. They reiterated speculation that Union University, also in Jackson, could take over the campus. ‘We don’t care about the denomination,’ said Linda. ‘Just that Lambuth saves its soul.’ Noting that Union is a Baptist college, Jeanie joked: ‘They’d probably use the chapel even more.'”

Dana College logo• Another small church-related school, Dana College made headlines in 2010 when a for-profit company tried to acquire it, only for the Higher Learning Commission to refuse to grant a “change of control” request — citing a policy that the new owner maintain a similar mission or else reapply for accreditation. This a year after another Lutheran college in the region, Waldorf of Iowa, was sold to a for-profit, online university, but only with the stipulation that it retain a residential, liberal arts mission at least in the short run. (Earlier this month, Midland University — an 1100-student liberal arts school — bid to purchase the old Dana College property, after a failed attempt earlier in 2013 to start an institute for training in energy-related fields.)

• For smaller, tuition-driven colleges like the three mentioned above, the challenge was primarily about a clear mission while still drawing students in a hypercompetitive marketplace. Southeastern University in Washington, DC, on the other hand, didn’t waver from its mission to diverse and underserved student populations. But that very mission made it highly reliant on federal financial aid, so when the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools (MSA) withdrew accreditation in 2009 and financial aid instantly dried up, the school had no choice but to close.

As reported by Kevin Carey in Washington Monthly, Southeastern was a poster child for the problems of the college accreditation system, as it retained its regional accreditation despite living “for many years on the most distant margins of higher education, mired in obscurity, mediocrity, cronyism, and intermittent corruption.” After being accredited in 1977, the 1980s raised red flags: the school’s comptroller and business manager were fired for financial improprieties; the loan default rate of Southeastern students reached a whopping 42%; and enrollment dropped from 1800 to 500. Though the MSA periodically put Southeastern on probation, this wasn’t publicized to students, and MSA didn’t start taking a tough line until 2003. By the time accreditation was withdrawn, the school’s graduation rate was an abysmal 14% and the school’s thirty programs were served by only six full-time faculty. Carey concluded that the accreditation system needed to be replaced by a federal regulatory agency “with the authority to audit and examine the financial status of institutions, much as the Securities and Exchange Commission can examine publicly traded corporations,” while groups like MSA would “return to their original purpose: establishing authentic standards of excellence in higher education and providing high-quality peer review.”

Thanks again to Ray Brown for compiling the state-by-state lists of closures, mergers, and name changes that I used for this research. You can learn more about such schools on his blog, College History Garden.

<<Read the previous entry in this series


3 thoughts on “When Colleges Close: Recent History

  1. Chris, my first professional position was at one of the colleges on your list (Barat College, Lake Forest, IL). When I started there in 1982 the college had recently gone coed. For most of its history Barat (pronounced Bear’-uh) was a women’s college and closely identified with the order of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ). A community of nuns still lived on campus, were members of the faculty, and provided a wonderful sense of belonging, even to those of us who were not Catholic.

    A large number of foreign students were added to the student body in the early 1980s and the governance of the college shifted from the order to a lay board of directors. While I worked there the presidency also shifted from the order to a non-Catholic layperson, Dr. Richard Soter (an Episcopalian). The history of the college is now recounted in a book by Sister Martha Curry (http://marthacurrybook.info/book.html). I knew of Sister Curry while working there, but our paths did not cross. I had a number of interesting conversations with another historian in the order, Sister Margaret Green, who was a wealth of information on the history of the area, including the college’s move to Lake Forest (and the surrounding wealthy residents who had varying opinions of the school). A wonderful summer Shakespeare festival was held on the spacious lawn of the college and drew a wide audience.

    As you might tell, I have some fond memories from my time at Barat, even though when I was interviewing for the position some people warned me of the precarious financial condition of the college. While working at the college there were, indeed, times when we wondered whether or not the college could meet the payroll. Perhaps my most cherished memory comes with the installation of Dr. Soter as president. My job for the event was to meet certain guests and direct them to parking areas on campus. One of those guests was Joseph Cardinal Bernadin. I expected a fleet of limos to arrive with the Cardinal. Instead, a single black Buick swung into the drive, the the Cardinal at the wheel. He got out of the car to inquire about where to park and proceeded to spend the next fifteen minutes talking with me about my job as a librarian and about my experience working at the college. I was so impressed with him in that moment, for the time he spent with me before the installation ceremony, that I followed his career, writings, and public speeches for the rest of his life. When he died, I went to Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago (also a site for North Park baccalaureate services) to pay my respects to this holy man.

    I’m sure that my Scandinavian Lutheran/Covenant forebears would have been amazed that I started my professional career at a Catholic college, given the tensions of small-town Minnesota between Catholics and Protestants. But for me it was a special time, a place of learning (for me and my students; I had faculty status and taught credit courses), a place for making mistakes and finding grace, and a place of rich memory. I still have some old videotape recordings that I made of the very decorative interior of the library, housed in an immense “Old Main” building full of rich carvings, tapestries, and other decorative elements. On a recent visit to Lake Forest I drove through the campus. Old Main is boarded up and the property is “under development.” It was a sad visit. DePaul University bought Barat after I left, with plans to create a north suburban presence, but the plans never got off the ground.

    Sorry to go on for so long, but I thought you’d be interested in a personal reflection on one of the colleges that showed up in your list.

    Tim

    1. A quick follow-up: probably the most famous alumna from Barat was Chicago mayor Jane Byrne. I never had a chance to meet her, but she did visit the campus while I was there.

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