US college closures could spread to public universities

Nation’s historically high level of shutdowns and consolidations overwhelmingly remains a private-sector malady, but states showing signs that old certainties may fall away

May 20, 2024
A ranger adjusts stop sign saying the park is closed in Kenmore, WA , Seattle to illustrate US college closures could spread to public universities
Source: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

The US is seeing a raft of college closures that is overwhelmingly confined to private institutions, although shifts in demographics and online capabilities are starting to test the longstanding idea that state governments are too fearful of their voters to allow public sector shutdowns.

At least 30 US colleges closed last year, after nearly 50 the previous year, as the protections of federal subsidies tied to the Covid pandemic have melted away. Almost all the losses involved private campuses, with the majority of those in the for-profit sector.

Yet there are rising signs that state lawmakers – long willing to cut the budgets of their colleges but not actually close them – might be reconsidering that stance.

Pennsylvania already is in the middle of a multi-year process of consolidating six public universities into two. Wisconsin officials have taken some steps in that direction and are now talking about doing even more. This year Oklahoma’s governor broached the idea publicly.

The nation’s net decline in school-leavers and its growing familiarity with online delivery is almost certain to further spread such thinking, said John Reinemann, former head of the Wisconsin Higher Educational Aids Board, the state agency in charge of student financial aid.

“In-person access to post-secondary ed is going to happen at fewer locations,” said Mr Reinemann. “At least for another couple of years, we’re going to see a few more contractions.”

For now, at least, state officials describe themselves as retaining strong options to avoid closures. Before they accept any significant reduction in campuses, said Rachel Burns, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (Sheeo), public college leaders will make ever-greater efforts to boost enrolment by pursuing more older students – both those who attended some college in the past, and those who never have – and out-of-state and international students.

Because of those available levers, Dr Burns said, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are unlikely to inspire imitators. “What we’ve seen to date is that that hasn’t happened – even when institutions are struggling, states have found the ability to support them,” she said.

That’s different, though, from the question of how well they support them. Sheeo just issued an annual report showing that public higher education appropriations look unusually strong, increasing last year by a nationwide average of nearly 4 per cent above inflation. Yet that positive data was accompanied, Sheeo found, by average drops in enrolment and the largest single-year decline in tuition revenue since the organisation began collecting the data in 1980.

The result is that US public colleges and universities may be keeping their doors open, but losing key elements of their missions. That’s very much the case at Delta State University in Mississippi, said Jamie Dahman, an associate professor of music – a programme now facing closure because it ranked poorly on a measure of revenue generation at Delta State.

Delta State just got a $1.4 million (£1.1 million) increase in its state appropriation, but is being pushed to cut 21 of its 61 programmes, mainly in the arts and humanities.

Similar slashings of offerings have been seen at bigger state systems including the University of Arizona and West Virginia University.

Dr Dahman said he understood the importance of both vocational training and the need to run a responsible budget. “But the mission of the university is to educate the whole student,” he said. “Teaching critical thought – that challenges beliefs and looks at things from a human point of view – I don’t know how you keep that going when your primary focus is professional, rather than educational.”

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Reader's comments (1)

public university campuses have been closing for years. How can the "reporter" not know this?