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 UPDATED: Oct. 2, 2019

A look at trends in college and university consolidation since 2016

By Education Dive Staff

Click here to see the full list of nonprofit college closures since 2016.

The last few years have been tumultuous ones for colleges and universities in the U.S. Increased regulation and reduced enrollment continue to be among several factors contributing to the closure or consolidation of thousands of colleges and campuses around the country.

That consolidation also impacted the priorities of ones that remained open. Institutions are adding degrees and certificates in emerging tech fields such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, and dropping low-enrollment programs including some in the liberal arts. They're also looking online, where they can reach more students with targeted subject matter.

That activity is ongoing, and analysts forecast more of it ahead. That is why we're keeping track of closures and consolidation in the space from 2016 to the present. You'll note that we've removed for-profit colleges from our list. Due to their differences in size and scale, as well as the sometimes fragmented nature of their closings, we've opted to keep them off the list in order to avoid over- or understating a closure. However, we include a discussion of activity in that space below.

We're pairing our list with analysis of the major trends the data reveals. We'll update both as we hear about closures, M&A and other consolidation.

If you see something we missed, let us know by using this form. You can see the full list here.

Below, we explore some of the biggest trends in higher ed consolidation.

Small liberal arts colleges fight to stay open

Undergraduate enrollment is on the decline, reducing the tuition revenue many small colleges rely on for lack of a sizable endowment. Experts say the drop-off is due in part to a strong economy and projections of a cyclical decline among the college-age demographic. To help attract more students, colleges are offering them a bigger break on tuition.

A 2016 report from Ernst & Young affiliate the Parthenon Group found 800 colleges vulnerable to "critical strategic challenges" due to their small size, compared to a much smaller share of colleges with enrollments over 1,000. The report lists several risk factors for small colleges amid the current environment of consolidation in higher ed. Those include: enrolling fewer than 1,000 students; the absence of online programs; tuition increases greater than 8% and discounts higher than 35%; and depending on tuition for more than 85% of revenue.

In a review of more than 75 New England colleges enrolling more than 100 students and that had annual expenses of less than $100 million in 2012 and 2016, The Boston Globe found tuition accounted for 70% or more of revenue at 63 institutions. Harvard University, by comparison, got 21% of its revenue from tuition in 2017. Small liberal arts colleges have played an important role in the region's economy and history, The Globe notes, which is partly why their closures tend to make headlines.

Tight budgets and small endowments factored into announcements by several New England colleges in recent months that they, too, would close. The 2018 closure of Mount Ida College, located near Boston, made headlines yet again this spring when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by students alleging officials knew the college was in financial trouble and didn't inform students of the situation until it abruptly shuttered in May following a failed merger attempt. The judge said the claims didn't stand up to state law and that paying tuition in exchange for education "does not create a contract" between the institutions and students.

The spate of closures in the region prompted the state higher education board and an accreditor to increase oversight of their financial performance.

Not all colleges faced with the likelihood of closing end up doing so, however. Iowa Wesleyan University raised enough money from alumni and the community to stay open for the spring 2019 semester after officials said it might close due to financial difficulties amid enrollment declines.

Major private liberal arts college closures and consolidation, 2016-present

Institution State Year Deal Dive Insight
American Jewish University CA 2018 Closed (Temporarily)  
Burlington College VT 2016 Closed  
College of New Rochelle NY 2019 (expected) Closed  
College of St. Joseph VT 2019 Closed  
Concordia College Alabama AL 2018 Closed  
Crossroads College MN 2016 Closed  
Dowling College NY 2016 Closed  
Grace University NE 2018 Closed  
Green Mountain College VT 2019 Closed Dive Insight
Hiwassee College TN 2019 Closed  
John Wesley University NC 2018 Merged (Piedmont International University)  
Marlboro College VT 2020 (expected) Merged (University of Bridgeport)  
Marygrove College MI 2019 Closed  
Marylhurst University OR 2018 Closed  
Morthland College IL 2018 Closed  
Mount Ida College MA 2018 Closed Dive Insight
Newbury College MA 2019 Closed Dive Insight
Saint Joseph's College IN 2017 Closed  
Shimer College IL 2017 Merged (North Central College)  
Southern Vermont College VT 2019 Closed  
St. Catharine College KY 2016 Closed  
St. Gregory's University OK 2017 Closed Dive Insight
Trinity Lutheran College WA 2016 Closed  

Institutions included on this list had one or more location close during the period. We did not consider satellite campuses.

Sources: Click here

Public systems consolidate 

Just as small colleges are undergoing major consolidation, so too are some larger university systems. Among the most high profile is the set of mergers underway within the University of Wisconsin System, which will consolidate 13 two-year colleges into seven four-year colleges. It's the system's biggest change since it formed in 1971, according to the Wisconsin State-Journal.

The University of Georgia System has been consolidating campuses for several years in a move to reduce operating costs and improve student outcomes. A trio of community colleges in Alabama, too, is consolidating into a single institution with a new name: Coastal Alabama Community College. Connecticut's community colleges are also eyeing an administrative consolidation.

The four-year University of Wisconsin-Green Bay will absorb a trio of two-year colleges: UW-Manitowoc, UW-Marinette and UW-Sheboygan.
 

Slightly fewer than half of college mergers between 2010 and 2017 — roughly 40 across nine or more states — involved at least one public college, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts' Stateline publication. Colleges face several challenges to successful mergers, however, including the potential for cultural mismatches, higher tuition from reduced local competition and challenges reconciling salaries of two-year college employees with the often-higher rates commanded by those at four-year institutions, Stateline reported.

Consolidation of individual colleges or entire systems is most successful when it's part of a strategic plan and not a last-ditch effort to save an institution, according to a 2017 report from the research arm of the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America. The report notes potential short-term costs include updating campus buildings, marketing the change and lost efficiencies despite the move to scale, and that gains pay out over the long term.

Major public college closures and consolidation, 2016-present

Institution State Year Deal Dive Insight
Alabama Southern Community College AL 2016 Merged (Faulkner State and Jefferson Davis community colleges)   
Armstrong State University GA 2017 Merged (Georgia Southern University)  
Asnuntuck Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating Administration Dive Insight
Bainbridge State College GA 2017 Merged (Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College)  
Capital Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Cumberland County College NJ 2019 Merged (Rowan College at Gloucester County)  
Faulkner State Community College AL 2017 Merged (Alabama Southern and Jefferson Davis community colleges)  
Gateway Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Georgia Perimeter College GA 2016 Merged (Georgia State University)  
Housatonic Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration  
Jefferson Davis Community College AL 2016 Merged (Faulkner State and Alabama Southern community colleges)  
Johnson State College VT 2018 Merged (Lyndon State College)  
Lyndon State College VT 2018 Merged (Johnson State College)  
Manchester Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Middlesex Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Naugatuck Valley Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Northwestern Connecticut Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Norwalk Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Quinebaug Valley Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Three Rivers Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
Tunxis Community College CT 2023 (expected) Consolidating administration Dive Insight
University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Platteville)  
University of Wisconsin-Barron County WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire)  
University of Wisconsin-Fond du Lac WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh)  
University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh)  
University of Wisconsin-Marathon County WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point)  
University of Wisconsin-Marshfield WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point)  
University of Wisconsin-Richland WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Platteville)  
University of Wisconsin-Rock County WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)  
University of Wisconsin-Washington County WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)  
University of Wisconsin-Waukesha WI 2020 (expected) Consolidated (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)  
Wichita Area Technical College WI 2018 Merged (Wichita State University)  

Institutions included on this list had one or more location close during the period. We did not consider satellite campuses.

Sources: Click here

For-profits look for a way forward

The for-profit sector has been in a downward spiral since 2016, when the Obama administration increased its oversight and stripped federal recognition of the accreditor responsible for two large chains — ITT and Corinthian Colleges — whose collapses drew attention to issues of misrepresentation and poor student outcomes within the sector. That accreditor, ACICS, oversaw about 250 colleges in 2016, a figure that has since shrunk by roughly two-thirds with 61 closing and more than 100 finding new accreditors, according to a July 2018 report by the Center for American Progress.

More than 100 for-profit and career colleges closed between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years alone, while 20 nonprofit colleges shuttered during that period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. And although the number of credentials issued increased 1.2% from 2012-13 to 2016-17, for-profits offered nearly 30% fewer than nonprofits.

The closures that have characterized the sector reared up again in late 2018 and early 2019 with the shuttering of for-profit colleges owned by three college operators: Education Corporation of America, Vatterott Educational Centers and the Dream Center. Combined, tens of thousands of students were affected. The closures' quick succession drew renewed attention to concerns over how the department and accreditors monitor struggling colleges, and what safeguards protect students when they shut their doors.

Argosy University, one of a handful of college chains owned by Dream Center Education Holdings, had its Title IV access blocked earlier this year. 
 

Efforts by the U.S. Department of Education under Betsy DeVos to roll back or weaken some of the regulations governing the sector are underway, most recently with its move to permanently reinstate federal recognition of ACICS after DeVos temporarily restored it last year. That could breathe new life into several ACICS institutions that were unable to find new accreditors. DeVos's Ed Department has also pledged to overhaul two key Obama-era regulations concerning for-profit colleges — borrower defense to repayment and gainful employment — though it missed a key deadline for doing so. It is now in the process of writing new rules for accreditation.

For-profit colleges have been taking advantage of lax oversight from the Ed Department to shed the sector's tainted reputation and targeted regulation.

The biggest move yet involved the for-profit Kaplan University, whose acquisition by Purdue University was finalized in 2018 to form the framework of the nonprofit's online education platform. And Grand Canyon University last year won approval to change status from a for-profit to a nonprofit institution, though it will operate under a for-profit parent that handles support services such as technology, marketing and financial aid. Critics say such moves allow for-profits to operate as nonprofits.

Other for-profit college operators are changing tack, dropping their colleges and picking up companies that can round out an educational services portfolio. Among them are Zovio, formerly Bridgepoint Education and parent of Ashford University, as well as Adtalem Global Education, which sold off DeVry University last year as it doubles down on professional education.

Several House Democrats, who won a majority in the 2018 midterm elections, have pledged to step up oversight of the Ed Department's de-regulatory efforts. Industry observers expect more movement among for-profits through 2020, including nonprofit conversions and acquisitions.

You can see the full list of consolidation hereDid we miss something? Let us know.