American higher education certainly faces its share of challenges. Overall higher education enrollment has dropped from its post-recession high, students and their families are increasingly skeptical of the value of higher education, and the credit rating agency Moody’s recently downgraded the sector to negative from neutral over revenue concerns. These challenges have led to some doomsday predictions regarding college closures; Clayton Christensen of Harvard predicted back in 2011 that half of all colleges would close within 10 to 15 years and since doubled down on his prediction.
To this point, the data tell a different story. While a sizable number of for-profit colleges merge or close in a given year, nonprofit higher education is remarkably stable (and public colleges rarely ever close). According to the U.S. Department of Education, eight degree-granting private nonprofit colleges closed in 2015-16 (the most recent year of data available). Yet the number of degree-granting private nonprofit colleges increased from 1,672 to 1,701—the largest number in 20 years.
Among private nonprofit colleges, there are a few clear risk factors for closure. Small, less-selective institutions with tiny endowments are at a higher risk of closure, particularly if they are located in parts of the country where the pool of traditional-age students is drying up. But these risk factors have existed for decades, yet there is rarely a year in which ten private nonprofit colleges close. (Moody’s expects the number to rise to about 15 per year going forward.)
A recent article published in The Journal of Higher Education helps to provide some data on how resilient small private colleges can be. Melissa Tarrant of the University of West Georgia led a team of researchers who looked back at a 1972 paper by Alexander Astin and Calvin Lee called “The Invisible Colleges.” In that paper, Astin and Calvin identified 491 private, broad-access institutions with fewer than 2,500 students—exactly the type of college that is of greater risk of closure. Yet Tarrant and colleagues showed that 354 of the colleges (more than 70%) were still operating as standalone private nonprofit institutions and only 80 had closed in the following four decades. A failure rate of less than 20% over 40 years does not bode well for predictions that higher education as we know it is going away anytime soon.
A case can be made that the current number of small private colleges is more than would exist if the higher education system were to be designed from scratch to meet the needs of today’s students. But Christensen misses the loyalty of campus communities and alumni (the saga of Sweet Briar College was a great recent example) and the sheer tenacity of institutions as they face extreme financial difficulties. More colleges may consider mergers and strategic alliances, but the rate of college closures in nonprofit higher education is likely to only tick up slightly in the coming decade.