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Colleges that might close soon

OK, I admit it.  That headline is clickbait.  I have no idea which colleges might close in the near future, but I want to take a look at the problem from 30,000 feet.

This is prompted by the recent announcement that Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts will close. It comes on the heels of several other announcements like this over the past few years.  And of course, because we've become accustomed to colleges surviving for long periods even during bad times, the surprise makes people wonder who's next.

The meta-answer will surprise you: While we of course feel bad for the people who lose jobs, the students who are displaced, and the community that finds itself dealing with the loss of a respected institution, these trends are small blips in the industry.  In fact, the institutions most likely to close (probably) collectively account for a small fraction of enrollment at America's colleges and universities.

Follow along.  

One of the challenges in talking about this is the graduate/undergraduate split in enrollment (enrollment is complicated, y'all) and the wide range of different types of missions in higher education.  Some small institutions are completely undergraduate, while some are mostly graduate.  Some institutions are heavily supported by outside money from a congregation or donations (think seminaries or other religious institutions), and still others are small by design, often because they have enormous endowments and/or highly focused missions.

But here is the hypothesis, and the data to give you some perspective on it.  

Let's suppose that colleges in danger of closing are very small, in either total enrollment or undergraduate enrollment.  Some of those, as I suggested, aren't in danger but we'll leave them in for the sake of simplicity.

I took all four-year private colleges, since public institutions rarely close purely for financial reasons, and for-profit college closings happen frequently, without much fanfare.  And I grouped them by undergraduate and graduate enrollment in 2022, and arrayed them on a grid.  The values across the top break institutional graduate headcount enrollment into groups and the values down the left-hand column breaks them into undergraduate enrollment by that measure. 

This is what the grid looks like. Click to expand:


Let's get draconian, and say that in the not-too-distant future every college in the second and third row will close: That is, those colleges with undergraduate enrollment of at least one student, but fewer than 1,000, regardless of graduate enrollment. All 687 of them will close. 

If that happened tomorrow, it would displace about 268,244 undergraduate students, or about 9.5% of all undergrads enrolled in those four-year, not-for-profit institutions.  Not a small number or percentage.  Again, these are real people who feel the results of those decisions.

But of course, four-year not-for-profit institutions are a small sliver of college students in America. All told, in the Fall of 2022, there were 15,964,998 undergraduate students enrolled across all types of institutions.  If we were to lose all of those 687 institutions and all 268,244 students, it would represent 1.7% of all college students nationwide.

Again, not insignificant if you're one the students affected.  But do we believe that we will see 687 closures in the coming years?  I suppose some people do.  I don't. And if you don't, you'll realize the net effect will probably be much, much smaller than you might have anticipated.

So when you hear about colleges closing, you should feel bad for the people affected.  But take a look at the data before you make rash pronouncements about higher education in general.


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