I graduated from West Plains High School in 1955 and went up to Springfield to matriculate—as they used to say—at Southwest Missouri State College. Celebrating its Golden Anniversary, SMS was at the midpoint in its journey from Fourth District Normal School to Missouri State University. That same fall and only a few blocks away, Evangel College—now University—was being born in the derelict buildings of the former O’Reilly General Hospital, a product of the Assemblies of God Church. Meanwhile back in West Plains, Moark Baptist College had breathed its last in the basement classrooms of the First Baptist Church.
In that fall of 1955 SMS, Evangel and Moark together provided a snapshot of the flux that is American higher education. Colleges are born from the dreams of individuals or groups to provide an education of a certain type for a specific population. Once born, the schools may prosper: high schools add advanced classes and soon become junior colleges; Junior colleges add upper division classes and become degree-granting senior colleges; senior colleges add schools to become universities. Regrettably, the reverse may also occur.
Like all institutions, colleges are surrounded by change. The biblical wars and rumors of wars, economic prosperity and depression, demographic shifts in the population, changes in cultural values, technological advances, international competition, the expectations of employers, the expectations of parents, the needs of students, the composition of the student pool—all have consequences for colleges. And the way in which the colleges are able or willing to respond to the change often determines whether they prosper or fail.
Following are profiles of 200 institutions that have closed or merged. Each institution has a unique story of creation, of growth, of students attracted, of programs offered, of challenges faced, of struggles, of successes, and ultimately of loss. However, among them, some common threads emerge of the challenges in higher education to attract and retain students and to attract support for building and operation.
I should confess two failings up front. First, this is not intended as an encyclopedia of lost colleges. Even the most casual glance will note the omission of schools that should be included. But this is also a work in progress, and so I hope to add a number of these schools as more research material becomes available to me. Second, some of the lost schools are not truly lost, existing still in hyphen form. This is easy to see with Case-Western Reserve University or Birmingham-Southern College, impossible to see in Rocky Mountain College, a merger of Billings Polytechnic Institute and Intermountain Union College, itself the result of a merger of College of Montana with Montana Wesleyan.
Roughly 80% of the included schools—whether designated as university, college, academy, seminary, institute, or school—were traditional liberal arts colleges. But because of local demands (and the need to pay bills), many of these included programs leading to certification in music, expression, business, or teacher education. More than 60% included high school and even elementary components (and indeed operated for part of their history as sub-collegiate institutions). Thirty-six were stand-alone professional schools. Twenty were schools of medicine, dentistry, or veterinary science. Eleven more were strictly normal schools or schools of physical education; three taught only commercial courses, and two were military academies.
Included schools extend from Maine to California and Washington to Florida, the geographical center is the Midwest. More than a quarter of the schools are found in a three-state area—Missouri (24), Iowa and Illinois (15 each). Following Texas (9), three other Midwestern states—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio—are each represented by 8 schools.
In terms of ownership, almost a quarter (47) of the closed/merged colleges were proprietary schools. This group included almost all of the professional schools. Just under an eighth (22) were public institutions. The remaining schools were, for the most part, supported by or associated with one of the churches. The Methodists headed this list with 30 schools. The Baptist (22), Catholic (18), Presbyterian and Lutheran (15 each) and Congregational (12) churches all had more than ten schools on the list.
Racine College closed its collegiate division in 1887, but the first of the 200 schools to actually close its doors was Central University in 1901, sacrificed to the reunification of the Presbyterian Church of Kentucky, which had split at the time of the Civil War. The latest to fall was Dana College of Nebraska, a 2010 victim of failed fundraising. The pattern of closures is as follows. Twenty schools closed before 1910. Several of these were professional schools forced to merge with a liberal arts college by their accrediting bodies. The World War I decade claimed 29 schools. Not surprisingly, 69 schools closed during the Great Depression and its aftermath. The World War II decade took 21 schools—including the temporary colleges opened at the end of the war. Each decade since 1950 has seen roughly a dozen schools close.
What is the procedure used to research lost colleges? If it is the aura one wants, one should make a campus visit. Early schools placed great emphasis on the community and on the site as an ideal place for learning. I have been fortunate in being able to visit almost a quarter of the former campuses. One of my own professors noted that our ancestors had built “monuments to education.” And so most extant buildings are awe-inspiring—even if they are in ruins. Even when buildings are missing, the landscape—generally featuring rising ground and open squares—tells that important things took place these. And however long the school has been gone, the feel of “college” remains “stamped on these lifeless things” in the words of Shelly.
If it is the life one wants, one should do research in yearbooks. I have become an avid collector of print yearbooks—most purchased on e-bay. I have also made the pilgrimage to Mid-Continent Public Library in Independence, MO, which has an extended yearbook collection. I subscribe to both e-yearbooks and Ancestry.com, and have supplemented these by a search of the Internet for other digital yearbooks. And I am thankful for individuals and libraries that have provided scans from their yearbook holdings. In one way or another, I have looked at yearbooks from over half of the schools included in this study. Yearbooks preserve the life of the school through a pictorial record of the students, their organizations and activities, and especially their sports. Earlier yearbooks were more intimate, being filled with student creative writing, prophecies, class histories, student profiles, social calendars, jokes, and cartoons. Even today one can fall in love all over again before the image of a 1905 coed.
If it is a more formal look at the school one wants, one should consult a catalogue or bulletin. These contain the history, purposes, programs, facilities, faculty, curriculum, course offerings, and graduation lists for an institution. Through either HathiTrust or Internet Archive I have reviewed these materials for more than a quarter of the profiled schools.
If it is news one wants of school openings—commencements, athletic events, social events, and any sensational happenings—one might consult any newspapers that cover the school. For example, I learned in 1913 the Commencement speaker at Alabama Presbyterian College was rebuked for removing his coat in the presence of ladies. Through Genealogy Bank and other digital services, I was able to gather information from more than 60 newspapers.
Through these sources I have tried to recreate as much as possible of the aura, life, and formal structure of each institution.