Despite high profile stories about the closing of small liberal arts colleges, such as California’s Mills College and Vermont’s Green Mountain College, college closures have actually declined in the past five years. But the numbers may spike again as declining U.S. birth rates soon translate into fewer graduating high schoolers after 2025.
First, the numbers. Thirty-five colleges and universities shut down in 2021, a 70 percent decrease from 2016, when a peak of 120 colleges shuttered, according to an analysis of federal data by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). For-profit operators ran more than 80 percent of the 861 institutions that ceased operations between 2004 and 2021. For perspective, the number of closures over the past 18 years represents almost 15 percent of the 5,860 of the colleges and universities that remain in operation.
“Many have closed their doors in recent years and many more may do so in the years to come,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which collaborated with SHEEO to track what happens to students when their colleges shut down.
Higher education administrators point out that it’s equally important to monitor individual campus closures. The closure of a branch campus can also leave students without good, nearby options for completing their degrees even when the parent institution is still operating branches elsewhere.
The number of these campus closures is 11 times larger. Almost 9,500 campuses closed between 2004 and 2021. Roughly 500 were closed because of a merger or a consolidation with another college. These campuses don’t always shut down physically but students aren’t necessarily able to continue their previous studies there. The remaining 8,986 branch campus closures occurred at 2,011 different institutions. Most of them continued to operate campuses at other locations.