861 colleges and 9,499 campuses have closed down since 2004


Becker College in Worcester, Mass., is one of more than 800 colleges and 9,000 campuses that have closed since 2004. Credit: Jon Marcus

Despite high profile stories about the closing of small liberal arts colleges, such as California’s Mills College and Vermont’s Green Mountain College, college closures have actually declined in the past five years. But the numbers may spike again as declining U.S. birth rates soon translate into fewer graduating high schoolers after 2025.

First, the numbers. Thirty-five colleges and universities shut down in 2021, a 70 percent decrease from 2016, when a peak of 120 colleges shuttered, according to an analysis of federal data by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). For-profit operators ran more than 80 percent of the 861 institutions that ceased operations between 2004 and 2021. For perspective, the number of closures over the past 18 years represents almost 15 percent of the 5,860 of the colleges and universities that remain in operation.

“Many have closed their doors in recent years and many more may do so in the years to come,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which collaborated with SHEEO to track what happens to students when their colleges shut down