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  Why Do Colleges Close?


So, why do colleges close?  When people find out I am doing a study of closed colleges,  that is the question I am most often asked.   For most colleges, the quick and dirty answer is that they run out of students or they run out of money.  Of course, these may be complementary issues.  For example, the Great Depression lessened the pool of students with tuition money just as it lessened the pool of donors with money to give.  But the issues may be separate.  South Dakota-Springfield was enjoying its highest enrollment in history when the state determined that it needed another  prison more than it needed a college.  Conversely, with the support of the Baptist Bible Union, Des Moines University was not cash strapped.  However, when students ran the president out of town, the school was forced to close.


Colleges may run out of students because of demographic shifts.  Early colleges—especially those west of the Mississippi River—were products of settlements of people from the East, who valued education but wanted their children educated close to home.  The result was small colleges in small towns and villages such as Kidder, MO; Tabor, IA; Holton, KS; Kingfisher, OK; Winnebago, MN; and Wahoo, NE.  Advertisements for those schools emphasized the rural features such as natural beauty, clean air and water, the absence of saloons, the lack of distractions, and the nurturing atmosphere of the community.  But the rural-to-urban population shift began to erode the student base for these small schools, causing many to fail.  Even today this is challenge for colleges in rural areas. in North Dakota.  Mayville State in North Dakota, where I taught, saw graduation classes from area high schools steadily become smaller as families left the farms.  Had the college not developed programs and delivery systems to attract students from outside the area, it too would have joined the “lost” list.


Likewise, changes in social values and attitudes can negatively affect student populations.  Many of the schools founded in the nineteenth century were unabashedly Christian if not sectarian, and they expected both teachers and students to share their beliefs and values.  Such schools experienced growth when a large number of students wanted higher education in a religious environment.  However, over time as fewer students sought a faith-based education, some schools, such as Milton College, were forced to reduce or drop their religious component.  Others such as Pillsbury Baptist Bible and Golden Valley Lutheran saw enrollment drops, leading to closure.  In much the same way, Alliance College went from a school with a required Polish heritage component to a college with an elective Polish heritage component to a closed college as fewer students of Polish descent sought a higher education experience that emphasized their exclusiveness.


Our view of the military has also undergone a shift.  Historically military training has projected a positive image.  In the early years of the twentieth century a number of Catholic and Lutheran colleges and academies placed their students “under discipline,” and high school-level military academies prospered.   However, the Vietnam War dampened much of the public enthusiasm for things military.  As a result, enrollment in those schools fell.  Oklahoma Military Academy and Kemper Military School both ultimately had to close.  


Wars themselves have affected college enrollment.  Eleven schools closed in 1918, and eleven more during World War II, as students—especially male students—became part of the war effort.  For example, there was such a demand for veterinarians during World War I that Kansas City Veterinary College was forced to suspend operations when all their students were drafted.  War’s end, however, was a boon for college enrollments—such that four new colleges  had to be created after World War II to handle the overflow of veterans armed with the GI Bill.  The Vietnam War, on the other hand, had a reverse effect on enrollment.  Since a college deferment was a means of avoiding the draft, at least four new colleges were created to the handle the enrollment increase.  When that war ended in 1973, college enrollment dropped; five colleges closed within two years.


Another change in social attitudes affecting college enrollment was race.  An Era of Progress and Promise profiles 276 black academies and colleges founded at a time when segregation was both a prevailing attitude and a legal structure.  But even before Brown vs. Board of Education ended legal segregation in the schools, there were attitude shifts that made integration—at least at college level—possible.  The cost of maintaining “separate but equal” institutions helped bring the end of Louisville Municipal College in 1950 when their programs were absorbed into the previously all-white University of Louisville.  Following the Brown decision, the white Wilson Teachers College and the black Miner Teachers College combined into a new integrated entity called District of Columbia Teachers College.


The long and difficult step from James Meredith’s 1962 entry into the University of Mississippi to Lester’s McLain stellar football career at the University of Tennessee (1967-69) was, in a sense, a step from a grudging acceptance of blacks in previously all-white colleges to welcoming them. And the impact was felt in the Historical Black Universities and Colleges. For when black students were not restricted to HBCU schools, enrollment in those schools fell and some closed.  Mississippi Industrial College and Morristown College were among the victims.


Overall, competition led to the closure of a number of schools.  Once society opened up geographically, morally, or racially, student choices likewise opened.  Texas schools such as Henry College felt that their enrollment suffered when improved highways allowed students to attend larger schools farther from home.  State measures to create public institutions also hurt private and more local institutions.  Some examples include Riker Institute, which fell to a state policy which placed a branch of the University of Maine in their neighborhood; Duluth JC, which fell to Duluth Teachers College in Minnesota; Fredericksburg College undercut by Fredericksburg Normal in Virginia, and Storer College, which lost ground to cheaper tuition at state colleges such as West Virginia State.   In the same way, the growth of public high schools drained away the academy and preparatory students that had helped keep some small private colleges afloat.  Burritt College in Tennessee was a case in point.


But a solid enrollment does not guarantee continued success when finances run short.  Almost a third of the closed colleges were bankrupt at the time.  In some cases sponsoring organizations themselves were unable to continue support.  For example, with the onset of the Great Depression, the Arkansas State Baptist Association was unable to provide promised funding for Mtn. Home College, leading to its closure.  


A more common cause of bankruptcy was a starvation diet followed by disaster.  “Never strong” is a common term used to describe finances in many small private or church-supported.  colleges. For example, a college such as Columbia in Oregon struggled along for a number of years in a financial crises mode. But with few cash reserves, the school was unable to survive a fire to its dormitory.  Whether, as a Dana College official noted, fires are the result of a school’s colleges burning zeal for knowledge, major fires contributed to the closure of a dozen colleges.


As noted above, the 1960’s saw a boom in college enrollments—fueled at least in part by the Vietnam War. A number of colleges incurred indebtedness as a result of building projects to meet such enrollment increases.  Under Millard Roberts, enrollment at Parsons College went from 400 to 5,000, leading to continuous campus expansion.  Schools such as Midwestern, Hiram Scott, Lea, College of Emporia, Milton and Tarkio also undertook major building projects.  When enrollments fell in the 1970’s, colleges were left with mounting debts for new buildings and less tuition income to cover the costs.  The result in some cases was a padlocked campus.


Colleges lost through mergers are also often the result of financial issues.  Colleges affiliated with the Lutheran church in the upper Midwest and with the Methodist church in the lower Midwest and South often found themselves reorganized to streamline administration, to utilize facilities more efficiently, or to avoid duplication of classes.  For example, for a time the Alabama Methodist Church had both a state conference-supported Southern University and a Northern Conference-supported Birmingham College.  In 1918 the two conferences merged support for Birmingham-Southern College.  In 1923 the Methodists created Ozark Wesleyan College at Carthage by joining Marionville College, Arkansas Conference College and Carleton College.  By 1932 Ozark Wesleyan itself was merged with Central Wesleyan.  Lutheran mergers included the stripping of collegiate programs and faculty from Park Region College and assigning them to Concordia of Moorhead; the combining of seminaries from Red Wing, Phelan Park and St. Paul; and reorganizing Northwestern College and Prep from Watertown, WI and Dr. Martin Luther College and Prep from New Ulm, MN. 


State colleges also were subject to being merged.  Platteville Normal College and neighbor Wisconsin Tech became the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.  District of Columbia Teachers College and Federal City College became parts of the University of the District of Columbia. In 1905 Florida famously reorganized higher education along line of race and sex, by which West Florida Seminary became Florida Women’s College and Florida Agricultural College merged with East Florida Seminary to form the University of Florida.

Mergers also often came about at the prompting of national accrediting bodies.  Until early in the Twentieth Century most medical and dental colleges were stand-alone institutions.  While many candidates arrived with some college work, others came straight from high school (or less).  The medical schools offered little other than medical training.  In 1902 the American Medical Association, the accrediting body for medical schools, recommended that medical schools be affiliated with an existing university to provide the needed general education coursework.  Thus, for example, Marion Sims-Beaumont Medical College became the medical school for St. Louis University.   


So while each college has a unique story of loss, some common threads of diminished student population, financial problems, accreditation issues, and natural disasters run through the whole. 


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