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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response


October 2020


What research is available on indicators of postsecondary institution closures?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and literature reviews on indicators of postsecondary institution closures. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to long-term institutional closures for both public and private, 4-year and 2-year institutions. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Colston, J., Fowler, G., Laitinen, A., McCann, C., Studley, J., Tandberg, D., et al. (2020). Anticipating and managing precipitous college closures. Washington, DC: New America. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Between the 2008-09 and 2016-17 school years, over 300 degree-granting higher education institutions in the United States have closed their doors. An overwhelming majority of these recently closed institutions are for-profit colleges, which often serve a population of disproportionately low-income students receiving Pell Grants and federal loans. Over the last five years, an average of 20 campuses have closed each month, leaving around 500,000 students (mostly working adults, low-income students, and students of color) affected, according to an analysis by the ‘Chronicle of Higher Education.’ Recently, closures of for-profits have hit these communities particularly hard given disproportionate enrollment of marginalized populations in those schools, sparking national debate about increased accountability for these institutions. The data on the overall state of closures in the higher education system, however, obfuscate the different ways in which those institutions close, and why they close in those ways. Some have engaged in orderly closures, in which an institution winds down its programs over time to continue serving current students without welcoming more students. Others, have experienced precipitous closures, where institutions shut their doors virtually without warning, leaving students left wondering what to do. This report examines a dozen precipitous college closures (both private nonprofit and for-profit), assessing the warning signs that were missed and the actions that were not taken to protect students. Each closure is examined across a range of metrics, including student outcomes; enrollment trends; governance concerns; speed and severity of regulator actions; institution response; and aftermath for students.”

Eide, S. (2018). Private colleges in peril: Financial pressures and declining enrollment may lead to more closures. Education Next, 18(4), 34–42. Retrieved from Full text available from

From the ERIC abstract: “Small mid-tier private schools tend to have modest endowments, and after decades of tuition hikes comparable to those of their elite peers, they are now at high risk of pricing themselves out of the market. The fiscal crisis of small private colleges will play out differently across the nation. States vary in their demographic projections and the degree to which their higher education systems rely on private schools. Informed observers agree that more closures are on the horizon, though they debate how truly disruptive the shakeout will be. A common thread among these struggling colleges is that they are small and less selective, admitting more than half of all applicants. Less-selective colleges generally command fewer financial resources than their more-selective peers. Another threat to small private schools lies in the practice of tuition discounting, providing most students with an institutional grant to partially offset the cost of their education. Also exerting pressure on private colleges is increased competition from public institutions. The emerging free-tuition movement could further strengthen the hand of public institutions at the expense of the private sector.”

Guth, D. J. (2020). Responding in a crisis: New community college presidents are put to the test in wake of COVID-19. Community College Journal, 90(6), 9–13. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The coronavirus pandemic has tasked recently hired presidents at two-year institutions with preserving their charges’ safety and health, representing an unprecedented leadership test alongside acclimating to a new campus. Newly minted presidents interviewed by ‘Community College Journal’—Daria Willis, president of Everett Community College in Everett, Washington; Leah Barrett, president of Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska; and Paul Broadie II, president of Santa Fe College in Florida—took proactive measures as the crisis deepened, aiming to bring normalcy to a learner population who rely on campuses not only for education, but also for essential services such as food, healthcare and help with financial aid forms.”

Zemsky, R., Shaman, S., & Baldridge, S. C. (2020). The college stress test: Tracking institutional futures across a crowded market. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In ‘The College Stress Test,’ Robert Zemsky, Susan Shaman, and Susan Campbell Baldridge present readers with a full, frank, and informed discussion about college and university closures. Drawing on the massive institutional data set available from IPEDS (the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), they build a stress test for estimating the market viability of more than 2,800 undergraduate institutions. They examine four key variables—new student enrollments, net cash price, student retention, and major external funding—to gauge whether an institution is potentially at risk of considering closure or merging with another school. They also assess student body demographics to see which students are commonly served by institutions experiencing market stress. The book’s appendix includes a powerful do-it-yourself tool that institutions can apply, using their own IPEDS data, to understand their level of risk. The book’s underlying statistical analysis makes clear that closings will not be nearly as prevalent as many prognosticators are predicting and will in fact impact relatively few students. The authors argue that just 10 percent or fewer of the nation’s colleges and universities face substantial market risk, while 60 percent face little or no market risk. The remaining 30 percent of institutions, the authors find, are bound to struggle. To thrive, the book advises, these schools will need to reconsider the curricula they deliver, the prices they charge, and their willingness to experiment with new modes of instruction. ‘The College Stress Test’ provides an urgently needed road map at a moment when the higher education terrain is shifting. Those interested in and responsible for the fate of these institutions will find in this book a clearly defined set of risk indicators, a methodology for monitoring progress over time, and an evidence-based understanding of where they reside in the landscape of institutional risk.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Zimmerman, B. (2018). Higher education in peril? Predictions and reality. Liberal Education, 104(4), n4. Retrieved from:

From the ERIC abstract: “Clay Christensen predicted half of colleges and universities would go bankrupt or close within a decade. Each year brings more financial trouble: a quarter of all private nonprofit institutions experienced deficits in 2017. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of financial officers at four-year private colleges reported their tuition discount rate was unsustainable. Variables identified as predictors of closures and mergers include unsustainable tuition discounts, frail endowments and lackluster fundraising, enrollments of fewer than one thousand students, missions misaligned with diversifying student demographics, and rural campus environments. Will these variables lead to closures and provoke similar institutions to consider mergers? This article presents a table that briefly summarizes institutional interventions, many implemented to forestall a closure or merger and to help expand financial security.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “Higher education” “school closing”

  • “Postsecondary education” “school closing”

  • “School closing” “predictor variables”

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched IES and Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2005 to present, were included in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Midwest) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.