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It was when the shuttle bus stopped coming that Luka Fernandes began to worry.

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This story also appeared in The Washington Post

Fernandes was a student at Newbury College near Boston whose enrollment had declined in the previous two decades from more than 5,300 to about 600.

“Things started closing down,” Fernandes remembered. “There was definitely a sense of things going wrong. The food went downhill. It felt like they didn’t really care anymore.”

The private, nonprofit school had been placed on probation by its accreditors because of its shaky finances. Then the shuttle bus connecting the suburban campus with the nearest station on the public transportation system started running late or not showing up at all. “That was one of the things that made us feel like they were giving up.”

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After students went home for their winter holiday, an email came: Newbury would shut down at the end of the next semester.

“It was, ‘Unfortunately we have to close after all these many years, and blah, blah, blah,’ ” said Fernandes, who was a junior. “I was very angry.”

The loans that students had taken out to pay the college weren’t forgiven, “which was infuriating. I had already put so much money into my education, and my family didn’t have that money. How am I going to apply this to my future if it doesn’t exist?”

This and other questions are on the minds of more and more students this spring as the pace of college closings dramatically speeds up.

About one university or college per week so far this year, on average, has announced that it will close or merge. That’s up from a little more than two a month last year, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, or SHEEO.

So many colleges are folding that some students who moved from one to another have now found that their new school will also close, often with little or no warning. Some of the students at Newbury, when it closed in 2019, had moved there from nearby Mount Ida College, for example, which shut down the year before.

Most students at colleges that close give up on their educations altogether. Fewer than half transfer to other institutions, a SHEEO study found. Of those, fewer than half stay long enough to get degrees. Many lose credits when they move from one school to another and have to spend longer in college, often taking out more loans to pay for it.

Related: After its college closes, a rural community fights to keep a path to education open

The rest join the growing number of Americans — now more than 40 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — who spent time and money to go to college but never finished. And that’s happening at a time when efforts to increase the proportion of the population with degrees are already facing headwinds.

“I was asking my dad, ‘Can I not go back?’ ” said Fernandes, who eventually decided to continue at another college and now works as a patient coordinator at a hospital.

“I’m glad I did. But it honestly scares me for the future of education. I’m not sure where education’s going to go if all of these colleges keep closing. It’s just another roadblock, especially with people who are struggling with tuition in the first place.”

Colleges are almost certain to keep closing. As many as one in 10 four-year colleges and universities are in financial peril, the consulting firm EY Parthenon estimates.

“It’s simply supply and demand,” said Gary Stocker, a former chief of staff at Westminster College in Missouri and the founder of College Viability, which evaluates institutions’ financial stability. The closings follow an enrollment decline of 14 percent in the decade through 2022, the most recent period for which the figures are available from the Education Department. Another decline of up to 15 percent is projected to begin in 2025.

“The only thing that’s going to fix this is enough closings or consolidations at which supply and demand reach equilibrium,” Stocker said.

That’s likely little comfort to students who attend or have attended closing schools.

The College of Saint Rose, one of many higher education institutions that are closing at the end of this semester. Credit: Albany Times Union/Hearst Newspapers

Already this year, and within a span of a few days, Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, Fontbonne University in St. Louis and Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio all announced that they would close — Birmingham-Southern in May, Fontbonne next year and Eastern Gateway by June, unless it gets a financial bailout.

The private, for-profit University of Antelope Valley in California was ordered by the state in late February to shut down because of financial shortfalls. Lincoln Christian University in Illinois and Magdalen College in New Hampshire will close in May, Johnson University of Florida in June and Hodges University in Florida by August. The College of Saint Rose in New York, Cabrini University in Pennsylvania, Oak Point University in Illinois, Goddard College in Vermont and the Staten Island campus of St. John’s University will all be shuttered by the end of this semester.

Notre Dame College in Ohio will also close its doors at the end of this semester, stranding for a second time students who transferred there from Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia, which shut down just days before classes were scheduled to begin the year before.

Related: Getting a college degree was their dream. Then their school suddenly closed

Seven out of 10 students at colleges that have closed got little or no warning. Of those, a smaller proportion were likely to continue their educations than students at colleges that gave more notice and ended operations in an “orderly” way, the SHEEO study found.

Tatiana Hicks was at her laptop preparing for her final exams in the nursing program she attended at for-profit Stratford University in Virginia when her group chat with fellow students started to blow up. “The only thing that was going through my mind was studying for finals, but my phone would not stop ringing,” said Hicks, who was going to school while working 12-hour shifts three days a week as a nurse assistant in a hospital to pay for it.

An email from the university president had just gone out saying Stratford had lost its accreditation and was closing, effective immediately. Students had a month to get their transcripts, it said. But within a day, the university’s phones and email were shut down, said Hicks, now 27, who lives in Gainesville, Virginia.

“I started panicking. I cried. I cried for hours that day. This just happened out of nowhere,” said Hicks, who lost all of the 94 credits she had earned and owed $30,000 in student loans, though they would later be forgiven after more than a year of red tape.

“Everyone kept asking me, ‘When are you going to go back?’ And I didn’t want to go back,” she said. “I thought, this just proved I shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place.”

Hicks did eventually enroll in a new program, beginning again from scratch on her way to a degree in respiratory therapy.

More common is the experience of Misha Zhuykov, who ended his formal education when Burlington College in Vermont shut down during his junior year there. The college had embarked on an ill-fated expansion, buying an abandoned Catholic orphanage so spooky Zhuykov helped make an award-winning movie in it for his film studies program. (The president at the time of the controversial expansion project was Jane O’Meara Sanders, wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders.)

Misha Zhuykov, who ended his formal education when Burlington College in Vermont shut down during his junior year there. “A lot of folks just kind of dropped off,” Zhuykov says. “I have a friend who’s working at a gas station.” Credit: Image provided by Misha Zhuykov

“There was always this ramshackle feeling” at Burlington, he said. Adjunct instructors were gradually replacing full-time faculty. “We kind of all suspected something might happen. I thought, ‘Just hold out for another two years and I’m out of here.’ ”

Instead, Zhuykov and the last 100 or so other undergraduates were given less than two weeks’ notice that the college would be closing. A private security company came to lock up the buildings. He said he found that not all of his credits would be accepted if he transferred.

Students who transfer lose an average of 43 percent of the credits they’ve already earned and paid for, the Government Accountability Office found in the most recent comprehensive study of this problem.

Like many of his classmates, Zhuykov never took his formal education any further. He now works as a graphic designer in New Hampshire. “A lot of folks just kind of dropped off. They were banking on that degree. I have a friend who’s working at a gas station.”

Related: A campaign to prod high school students into college tries a new tack: Making it simple

Even those who graduated from colleges that later closed run into uncomfortable questions when they look for jobs. Roy Mercon went to Burlington after serving in the Army. He managed to graduate before the college stopped operating. But when he’s applied for jobs, he gets skeptical reactions. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re from that school. I tried to look it up,’ ” he said.

“You kind of trusted the people teaching you that they know what they’re doing. This makes you feel a little cynical and sets the tone for the rest of your life,” said Mercon, who is 35 and working on the help desk of a citywide internet service provider in Burlington. He now has a 12-year-old daughter of his own. If she decides to go to college, he said, he will investigate to make sure the one she picks won’t close. “That’s an insane thing to have to think about.”

The former Burlington College campus in Vermont. The college closed in 2016. Credit: The Associated Press

Laila Ali, who was in the last group of students to graduate from Newbury College, has run into similar paperwork problems. When she started a new job in December, she said, her employer tried to verify her education, but couldn’t. “I didn’t really know what route to take. Who do I contact?” She ultimately showed them the physical degree that she was handed when she walked at graduation, which the employer accepted. But it triggered unwelcome memories.

“I remember graduation and my last semester being gloomy,” said Ali, now 27 and living in Atlanta. She said she saw a few signs that the college was in trouble, but it had also recently renovated a gym, with new equipment, and added sports teams. So the closing came as a surprise. “They could have given us a warning.”

How much difference a warning can make was evident at Presentation College in South Dakota, which — before announcing that it would close — contracted with the nonprofit College Possible to help its 384 remaining students continue their educations. After the announcement, the college stayed open for a final full semester and kept paying its athletics coaches to connect its many student-athletes with new teams.

At first, when administrators gathered everyone in the fieldhouse to announce the closing, “the students were so struck with disbelief that about half of them just got up and left,” said Catherine Marciano, College Possible’s vice president for partnerships. “Other students were crying very publicly or expressing anger toward the administration.” And when the college held a “teach-out fair” in the same gym with institutions that had agreed to accept its students and their credits, none showed up, despite a deluge of social media promotion.

“It took a little while for us to gain momentum,” Marciano said. Faculty and staff were looking for new jobs, while “students at that point were still in that state of grief where they were paralyzed.”

But given time, she said, “we saw those emotions shift to, ‘Okay, I have to figure out my next steps. I want to keep playing sports or keep pursuing my nursing degree.’ ”

In the end, 90 percent of those last students either graduated in the final semester before the college closed its doors for good or transferred to another institution, Marciano said — a far higher proportion than at closed colleges elsewhere.

Related: Aging states to college graduates: We’ll pay you to stay

Cassy Loa was one of those. A junior at Presentation when it closed, she played on its softball team and managed to transfer to Dickinson State University. But even with the help provided to her, she said, the path from the day the closing was announced was bumpy.

“All these thoughts were going through my mind. What was I going to do? Will my credits transfer? Can I still play softball? Where will my friends go? I had one more year until I graduated, and now I had to go and find a school for one more year.”

Cassy Loa, who was a junior at Presentation College when it closed. She transferred to Dickinson State University, where she was able to continue playing softball. Credit: Image provided by Cassy Loa

Living through that process, she said, “felt like being a senior in high school again.” In the end, because Presentation had a teach-out agreement with North Dakota’s Dickinson State, most of her credits transferred.

That kind of an experience is an exception to the rule, however. “Students don’t always do well when colleges close. In fact, they typically don’t do well,” said Paula Langteau, the last president of Presentation. “Some colleges literally padlock the door, and that’s their announcement.”

This is not deliberately malicious, Langteau said. Struggling schools “think they can somehow stay open. Or maybe they’re afraid of looking like they failed.”

She now works as a consultant to help other colleges through the process — a sign of how frequently it’s happening.

“We’re starting to get through to colleges and to boards that there needs to be more pre-planning, and it’s hard,” Langteau said. “It’s hard to admit when it’s time for an institution to close or to merge.’ ”

Mergers are also picking up, though they almost always end with the struggling partner fading away. Woodbury University is being merged into the University of Redlands, and St. Augustine College in Chicago into Lewis University. The Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences was absorbed by Saint Joseph’s University in January. Salus University will become part of Drexel University in June and stop running as a separate institution next year. Bluffton University in Ohio will be integrated into the University of Findlay, also next year.

This seems an easier route for students, who presumably can finish at the successor college. But it isn’t always. Students who attended Mills College received a $1.25 million settlement in a lawsuit charging that they were promised they could finish their degrees after the college was absorbed by Northeastern University. The lawsuit alleged that Northeastern phased out programs it didn’t already offer, in which 408 of the Mills students had enrolled. The universities deny having misled the students.

These shutdowns also affect taxpayers, who have to absorb the cost of the federally subsidized student loans that are forgiven in some instances. Students attending ITT Tech had $1.1 billion in debt forgiven when it shut down, for instance.

New U.S. Department of Education rules take effect in July that will require institutions to report if they are entering bankruptcy or facing expensive legal judgments, and to set aside reserves to cover the cost of student loans if they go under.

It’s also growing more important that consumers understand the financial status of colleges they consider, said Stocker, of College Viability.

“If a restaurant has health complaints, we don’t want to go there,” said Stocker. “If a car manufacturer is having trouble, why would we want to buy that car? Same thing for colleges.”

This story about college closings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Additional reporting by Sara Hutchinson. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. Listen to our higher education podcast.

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  1. I must admit that having read this article as a retired college professor, my first reaction was to worry about the survival of colleges as institutions, along with their faculty. Now I am more concerned about the students who are being abandoned. There is certainly enough brain power in these institutions to foresee their financial future – adequate warnings need to be given to students, along with financial accommodations. Of course, this is all part of a broader crisis that I have seen coming for years – is the private college a sustainable model? I think not. It seems to me that one possibility, or perhaps necessity, is that colleges will need to move from a four year (expensive) residential requirement to a system that requires a one or two year campus residency with the rest becoming an online curriculum. Of course, that begs the question of maintaining faculty quality, given the vicious circle of fewer tenured positions available, leading to diminishing numbers of grad students. We are coming out of the “good old days” of college life to a very new and in many ways, a problematic future.

  2. In Wisconsin we have a state-designated entity that becomes the repository for transcripts of work done at shuttered colleges and universities. Some (very few) institutions’ records ended up at a different repository but there is also a state office who maintains a master list of where every college’s records are. That seems to me to be a step some other states may want to take. We’ll see more of this going forward, I am sure, although a certain number of potential closures will of course end up as mergers.

  3. No doubt this sentiment will sound callous, in the wake of these students grief & loss. But what happens to the community that has surrounded & built up around a college? And then too the vacant sprawling campus buildings, when so many people go without affordable housing, or unhoused entirely. It is a much larger systemic issue for us all…

  4. I found this article puzzling. Businesses of all manner go out of existence everyday. Given the population dynamics at play in the US, there is clearly insufficient demand for all colleges to continue in their current state. What we are seeing is market adjustments. What does the author suggest be done as a matter of “public policy?”

    The larger question is: Should we continue to urge every student to go to college? I would suggest, no, we should not.

  5. I retired two years ago, after 30 years working on a college campus in the mid west. It is sad to see so many campuses closing, but it is important to note that their demise never, ever happened overnight. Every last one of them that I have read about, saw it, or should have seen it coming years before it happened. As I have observed, the hard decisions to save them were almost never made until their backs were up against the wall. At that point it was almost always too late. Some minor decisions (MINOR DECISIONS) that could have started years ago and started saving monies include some of these VP positions. Unless it is a large institution, did they really need a VP of Enrollment Management and VP of DEI? Could these not be coordinator positions that report to a VP? Did a college with less than 2,000 students need a VP, Assistant VP, or could if have been a VP then a Director ? The administrative staff keeps growing, but…. Could they have slowly dropped a major here and there that was not too popular and expand those majors that are popular -like, say nursing? Could they have launched a capital campaign years earlier including finding a way to increase alumni giving? Could they have dropped one or two of their athletic programs earlier? Here is the winner. Everyone states that the number of college age students is dwindling. Yes, this is true of the traditional age students, but not the non-traditional student population that they are not aggressively going after. In case no one noticed, there is a growing Latino population, and many of them are middle class, or their parents earn middle class salaries. This group is being overlooked -or they are doling out more monies than is necessary to attract them. I might also add that there is a growing Black middle class that is being overlooked. I am going to suggest that it is time for the faculty to accept that while they are in a system of shared governance, they do NOT run the institution. I have always respected their input in matters on campus( and their input really helps), but never understood why when a hard decision is, and had to be made for the best interest of the institution, they are up in arms and voting no confidence in the president. I was dumbfounded when this happened on my campus because, in order to close the budget gap, they eliminated the Physics department that had only 4 majors as well as the Physical Therapy department that was not attracting enough students, and those that came in were not graduating. It had more to do with changing demographics, and not for a lack of trying to recruit. Which was better -the survival of the school or keeping your colleagues employed (people with advanced degrees who could reasonably find employment elsewhere)? It is my observation that most (not all) these institutions that are now closing had to have seen it coming years ago, and might have slowly addressed the problem however the saw fit, without causing alarm, rumors and bad PR. It is also sadly an observation that some of these institutions in rural areas stood no chance.

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