With student pool shrinking, some predict a grim year of college closings
THE HECHINGER REPORT
October 13, 2023
A new wave of college closures is expected to begin this year.
The colleges won’t be closing solely because of Covid, although it did flip the entire universe of higher education on its head. But many struggling colleges have been able to keep their doors open longer than expected in part because of help from federal and state Covid relief funding. Now, for many, those funding streams have run dry and it’s time to face the inevitable.
Holy Names University in California and Cazenovia College in New York are among those that recently announced plans to close and re-route their students after the spring semester. They will join the list of 35 colleges that closed their only or final campus in 2021, and 48 more in 2022, according to an analysis of federal data by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
More such closure announcements are expected, this year and next. Students are often victims, too, in that many of them give up their studies or are unable to find a new path to earning a degree.
Most of the colleges that will close in the coming years have been on wobbly ground since before the pandemic took hold, said David Attis, managing director of research at EAB, an education consulting company.
Enrollment in nearly every type of college took a hit during the pandemic, and birth-rate calculations suggest it’s only going to get worse, with fewer high school seniors graduating after 2025. When fewer students enroll in college, institutional revenue declines, but costs almost never do, which creates a problem.
Now, for colleges that were already in a precarious financial situation before the pandemic, Attis said, “the choice is close or collaborate.”
Colleges can stabilize by pooling their resources and working together, Attis said, like Bloomfield College and Montclair State University in New Jersey, which announced plans to merge by June of this year.
But this approach can be challenging. Often, the colleges that find themselves in these predicaments are relatively small and serve a niche community of students, rather than drawing from a broad, national pool, Attis said. They tend to be regionally specific, single-gender, religiously affiliated, or narrowly focused in what they teach.
And even when they share similarities with another college, each campus tends to have its own distinct identity and often administrators prefer to maintain autonomy, Attis said.