September 15, 2015
When Sweet Briar announced that it planned to close its doors back in March, traffic on the college’s website was so heavy that the servers crashed. For many, the news meant renewed anxiety over the fate of small liberal-arts colleges. For Ray Brown, it meant another name to add to his list.
Mr. Brown, director of institutional research at Westminster College in Missouri, runs a blog called College History Garden, which documents colleges that have closed, merged, or changed names. Not including Sweet Briar — which is no longer going to close — Mr. Brown has already logged the scheduled closure of six nonprofit colleges this year.
“Most college communities will face threats and figure out how to survive,” he says. “Occasionally they don’t, and then it becomes interesting.”
Mr. Brown started documenting closed colleges when he was working at the Associated Colleges of Central Kansas, and he wanted to know how many colleges and universities operated in the state. He wasn’t able to find a reliable list, so he decided to build his own. He posted his preliminary research online, and soon emails from readers started coming in with names of additional colleges that had shut down. Since 2007, he’s been documenting college closures across the country.
Tracking closed colleges, Mr. Brown watches some institutions evolve and survive while others fail. The life cycle of colleges is dynamic, he says. And he says a look to the history of past closings helps put cases like Sweet Briar in perspective.
To Mr. Brown, the biggest surprise wasn’t that Sweet Briar had decided to close. Since he started documenting college closings on his website, he has seen a few colleges shut down and a few new colleges open almost every year. Generally that pattern has held steady. And when he sees colleges fail, the reasons are typically the same: “You can’t afford to pay your faculty. You can’t afford to pay your bondholders, pay your expenses. I think that’s true 50 or 100 years ago; I think that’s true yesterday.”
He sees Sweet Briar’s eventual decision to remain open as the novel part. “Making an announcement almost makes it inevitable,” he says.
John Thelin, a professor of higher education at the University of Kentucky and author of A History of American Higher Education, agrees that the reaction to Sweet Briar’s announcement was more severe than it needed to be. Sweet Briar has been in trouble since the 1980s, he says, and the challenges are simply the culmination of a decades-long struggle.
“Small private colleges without large endowments are always at risk, even in the best of times,” he says. “This is going to be a rough period for many college and universities, but I think there have been many other periods that were just as challenging.”
Mr. Thelin points to the late 1970s and early 1980s as some of the worst years for college closings. College enrollment was high during the Vietnam War, when attending college was a way to avoid the draft. But after the war ended, enrollment dropped. Groups like the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education “were predicting that somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of American colleges and universities were at serious risk of closing,” he says. “That wasn’t all that long ago.”
The first half of the 19th century was equally challenging, Mr. Thelin adds. Religious and special-interest groups built too many colleges, and there just wasn’t the demand to support them, he says. So while colleges today are “more malnourished” than usual, we’ve seen much worse.