A new wave of college closures is expected to begin this year.
Not only will colleges be closed because of Covid, though, it has turned the entire higher education world upside down. But many struggling colleges have been able to keep their doors open longer than expected, in part because of help from state and federal relief funding. Now, for many, those funding streams have run out and it’s time to face the inevitable.
Holy Names University in California and Cazenovia College in New York are among those who recently announced plans to close and reorient their students after the spring semester. They will join a list of 35 colleges that closed their sole or final campuses in 2021, and 48 more in 2022, according to an analysis of federal data by the Association of State Higher Education Executives.
More closing announcements are expected this year and next. Students are also often victims, with many abandoning their studies or being unable to find a new path to a degree.
Most of the colleges that will close in the coming years have been wobbly since before the pandemic hit, said David Attis, managing director of research at EAB, an education consulting firm.
Enrollment in nearly every type of college has taken a hit during the pandemic, and birth rate calculations suggest it will only get worse, as fewer seniors graduate high school after 2025. When college enrollments decline, so do institutional revenues, But their cost almost never does, 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 collaborator.”
Colleges can stabilize themselves by pooling their resources and working together, Attis said, such as Bloomfield College and Montclair State University in New Jersey, which announced plans to merge by June of this year.
Related: The analysis found that hundreds of colleges are showing serious financial warning signs
But this approach can be tricky. Colleges that find themselves in these predicaments are often relatively small and serve a niche community of students, Attis said, rather than relying on a broad national pool. They tend to be regionally specific, single-sex, religious, or narrowly focused on what they teach.
Even when they share similarities with another college, Attis said, each campus tends to have its own distinct identity, and administrators often prefer to maintain their independence.
“What we’re trying to make recommendations for is to have a really good plan in place before the shutdown happens. Because institutions are getting to this point of being in financial straits or really low enrollment and that’s kind of a panic situation.”
Rachel Burns, Senior Policy Analyst, Association of Higher Education State Executives
Ates said colleges will need to innovate and cut costs in order to thrive as higher education in general shrinks.
Rachel Burns, senior policy analyst at the Association of State Higher Education Executives, or SHEEO, said she also expects to see a “catch-up period” to close colleges that have been temporarily delayed by Covid relief funds.
When university leaders decide they have no other choice but to close, Burns said, there are right ways and wrong ways to handle it.
At a minimum, Burns said colleges should give students three months’ notice of the closure, though a full semester’s advance notice would be better. The college should have plans to maintain student records and refund tuition fees. They should partner with neighboring colleges for their students to transfer and earn a degree in their chosen field of study.
Even when these measures are in place, about half of the students whose colleges are closed complete a degree, according to research from SHEEO and the National Student Clearinghouse.
Because closures can be so disruptive to students and so detrimental to college completion, Burns said it’s best to respond proactively to issues and prioritize student itineraries as early in the process as possible.
Related: Closing colleges with little or no warning leaves students scrambling
Just as colleges have plans for natural disasters and other large and apocalyptic events, Burns said they should have plans for a financial crisis, and how they can shut down the institution and better protect their students. This type of plan will include an agreement with other institutions to transfer students (known as a teaching agreement), plans for record keeping, how to recover tuition and other logistical details. SHEEO recommends that this type of plan be required in order for colleges to be authorized or re-authorized by a state’s higher education accrediting authorities.
“We’re not saying we can solve the problem of closing universities,” Burns said. “What we’re trying to make recommendations for is to have a really good plan in place before the shutdown happens. Because institutions are getting to this point of being in financial straits or really low enrollment and that’s kind of a panic situation.”
This story about college closures was produced by Hechinger ReportAn independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Subscribe to our site Higher education newsletter.