As Covid-19 Accelerates a Crisis in Higher Education, a New Study Identifies Geographic Hotspots for Campus Closures

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Detroit, MI, Columbia, SC, and Oklahoma City, OK identified as geographic hotspots for campus closures, but there are strategies institutions can use to mitigate risk according to U3 Advisors and brightspot’s analysis of over 2,000 colleges and universities

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“College closures can create profound ripples that reverberate well beyond their doors, impacting local communities, and potentially derailing opportunities for economic advancement,” said Shea O’Neill, Vice President of Research at U3 Advisors.

A new analysis of 2,300 universities identifies geographic hotspots for campus closures, highlighting the impact that these closures could have on the 124 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and all 50 states, and recommends strategies for institutions to avoid a closure crisis. As the well-documented crisis in higher education has accelerated due to Covid-19, the challenges facing America’s colleges for the last decade have been amplified, leaving hundreds of small colleges questioning their futures.

The study, The Geography of Campus Closures & How to Avoid Them, conducted by U3 Advisors and brightspot strategy, tracks risk factors that focus on each universities’ competitive advantage and identifies best practices from colleges working to mitigate these risks. Findings show that almost a quarter of all universities, 560 schools, find themselves at serious risk for closure, with 40% of schools at greatest risk located in just six states: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

The geographic inequity of risk is particularly stark when comparing different metropolitan areas; the report highlights that potential college closures could impact a diverse set of metro regions including Detroit, MI; Columbia, SC; and Oklahoma City, OK, which could see more than 40% of colleges and universities shut down. “College closures can create profound ripples that reverberate well beyond their doors, impacting local communities, and potentially derailing opportunities for economic advancement,” said Shea O’Neill, Vice President of Research at U3 Advisors.

In the top ranked six states, the “highest risk schools” enroll just 22% of undergraduates, yet they enroll 40% of low-income undergraduates, and 50% of non-traditional learners (undergraduates over 25). College closures may in turn impact disproportionately low-income and diverse students, calling out larger questions of racial and economic equity. For example, even higher-performing metros will see unequal impacts among students of color: the Baltimore City MSA, ranked 73 nationally, shows that of the universities at risk, 46% are students of color. For the San Francisco-Oakland MSA, ranked 34 nationally, shows that of the universities at risk, 62% are students of color.

“It’s tragic that campus closures will disproportionately impact low-income and non-traditional students,” said Elliot Felix, Founder and CEO of brightspot strategy. “In so many ways, colleges and universities were not designed for today’s students who are first-gen, low-income, or adult learners. Now is the time for institutional redesign not just to meet these students needs but to stop a closure crisis before it starts.”

The analysis further provides innovative solutions, highlighting the importance of system-wide changes. These include broadening appeal, space and student service efficiency, monetizing real estate, alumni engagement, resilient online and hybrid programs, rethinking campus capacity, and program prioritization and focus. Some institutions may be able to control and mitigate their risk factors by applying these strategies. Other institutions may soon be forced to merge or close their doors, but can work to transition intentionally and productively.

Now is the time for institutions to think ahead so that the decisions that will push colleges in one direction or another will not be made in isolation or in panic. The outcomes of these decisions affect not just students and staff, but communities, cities, and broader campaigns for racial and economic justice. So, every institution will need to take an unflattering look at enrollment, financial projections, and their operations. But given the tight relationships between supply and demand -- especially for smaller, regional colleges -- policymakers, educational consortia, and foundations also have the opportunity to engage from a collective standpoint to reimagine their programs, student services, real estate, and connections to local communities, industry partners, and each other.

“When one school is on the verge of closing, it requires individual action; when many schools are on the verge of closing within the same city or state it suggests a need for creative and collective action from institutional, civic, governmental, and philanthropic leaders,” said Shea O’Neill, Vice President of Research at U3 Advisors.

“The playbook for responding to the Great Recession – shifting the financial burden from states to students and increasing international student enrollment – were not sustainable and won’t work again now,” said Elliot Felix, Founder and CEO of brightspot strategy. “Colleges and universities need a new playbook. By focusing their programs, improving the experience and efficiency of their spaces and student services, and better engaging their applicants, students, and, alums, institutions cannot just survive but thrive.”

Download the full report here.

Download supporting data tables here.

View interactive Tableau.

To engage more, please contact Shea O’Neill (soneill@u3advisors.com) or Elliot Felix (Elliot@brightspotstrategy.com)

U3 Advisors is a consulting firm based in Philadelphia and New York that helps institutions advance bold visions, identify shared values, and take action to realize their goals for economic, physical, and cultural development. Learn more at: https://www.u3advisors.com/

brightspot strategy is a strategy consultancy on a mission to transform the higher education experience with smart strategy that better connects people, programs, and places – on campus and online – to increase student success, improve research support, and enable staff productivity. Learn more at: https://www.brightspotstrategy.com/

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Alyssa Miller
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