The announcement Wednesday that Mills College in Oakland, an historic institution for the education of undergraduate women, will close by 2023 sent shock waves through California’s private college network and raised worries that other campuses might next succumb to financial problems worsened by the pandemic.

Mills is the second small private nonprofit college in California to announce drastic steps in recent months. Notre Dame de Namur University, a Catholic institution in Belmont, said it would end its undergraduate programs this spring although it plans to continue some graduate classes. That campus in the San Francisco Bay Area had enrolled about 800 undergraduates and 570 graduate students.

Higher education experts said that the pandemic has hurt all colleges with extra costs for the shift to online classes and the loss of revenues even if enrollments stayed stable. But that was particularly tough for some small private schools like Mills that already had trouble competing with the many lower-cost public institutions nearby and did not have enormous endowments or state support to cushion the blows.

Mills, which for long has had a student body smaller than most high schools and lacked a national brand name, saw its total enrollment drop 14% from 1,122 in fall 2019 to 961 in fall 2020.

Some experts are predicting that hundreds of small colleges across the country could be at risk of shutting their doors soon. However, industry leaders argue that such forecasts are overly alarmist and that there will not be any sudden surge of campus closures or mergers in the private college sector.

More closures likely

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, a group of 656 schools including Mills, said he anticipated “there might be a small increase in the number of colleges that close in the coming year” because of issues exacerbated by the pandemic. But he said he does not expect “an epidemic of colleges going over the cliff.” The number of small colleges closing or merging per year have varied between zero and 10 annually over the past couple of decades, even during the Great Recession, he noted.

Closures are usually caused by local issues such as area demographics and location rather than national trends, Ekman said. Besides competition from state universities and community colleges, Mills faced the difficulty of not enrolling men as undergraduate students. In 1990, Mills leaders tried to start admitting men to the undergraduate student body as a solution to financial woes (graduate programs always included men). But Mills rescinded that attempt after an uproar among alumnae and a two-week-long student strike.

The impact of COVID-19 pandemic

If not for the losses and expenses triggered by COVID-19, Mills “might very well have survived,” Ekman added.

Mills’ announcement, while “very sad,” should not be seen as a harbinger of massive closures of small, private liberal arts colleges, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education, the higher education policy organization that includes 1,700 schools. Mills was “in a financially perilous situation for years,” Hartle added. Then the pandemic worsened matters.

“Mills has been around since the Civil War and has survived the Civil War, World War I, the Depression and World War II. But it couldn’t survive COVID,” Hartle said.

While several colleges close every year, predictions of massive shutdowns of small colleges have been around for decades and that has not happened yet, he said. “It’s very possible that other small private colleges will close in the years ahead. But there won’t be a surge of closings in the immediate future,” Hartle said. The massive infusion of federal funds in recent stimulus programs will help schools as will a return to full in-person classes and activities in the fall, he added. Mills is slated to receive $3.1 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.

A grim forecast

In contrast, Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania higher education professor, has made much more dire predictions. “The College Stress Test,” a recent book he co-authored, analyzed the market pressures that threaten some colleges and forecast that 100 private colleges with enrollments of less than 1,500 could close over the next five years. More recently, Zemsky upped that number and warned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that 200 might shutter in the next year because of the pandemic. Zemsky could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Lande Ajose, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy adviser on higher education, said in an email that “this isn’t the first school closure, and it won’t be the last.” She added that the pandemic “has been devastating for so many colleges, especially some of our smaller, nonprofit institutions whose dependence on full enrollment is essential.” Ajose praised Mills’ leaders for “ensuring that this will be a smooth transition for students, faculty and staff.”

Kristen Soares, president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, said she is worried that the pandemic is accelerating financial problems of small liberal arts colleges to the point that some others in the state might close. “I suspect so,” she said, stating that she did not know which of her group’s 85 member schools were most at risk to fold.  Describing herself as “heartbroken” over the Mills decision, Soares said the state government and the colleges should now focus on “how we preserve these important institutions that provide incredible access to students.” Among other things, she said the state should increase the Cal Grant amounts for students who enroll at private colleges and the schools should publicize themselves and recruit more strongly.

In California, nearly 200,000 undergraduates and 180,000 graduate students attend private nonprofit colleges and universities, ranging from small schools like Mills College to such giants as the University of Southern California.

Mills College started in 1852

Mills College began as a religious school in 1852 and moved in 1871 to its current location on 135 lushly landscaped acres in the Oakland hills. While its tuition and fees, not including room and board, totaled $30,570 this year, most students receive financial aid. Nearly half of Mills undergraduates have low enough incomes to be eligible for federal Pell Grants as well.

In Wednesday’s announcement, the school said that it would stop enrolling new undergraduates after fall 2021 and that it would “most likely” grant its last degrees of any sort in 2023. Mills promised to help its students transfer to other schools if they want to.

The school intends to transform itself into an institute focusing on women’s leadership and to advance gender and racial equity.

“Today, because of the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural changes across higher education, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget deficits, Mills must begin to shift away from being a degree-granting college and toward becoming a Mills Institute that can sustain Mills’ mission,” said Mills President Elizabeth L. Hillman in a statement.

Sweet Briar College, a women’s college in Virginia facing similar difficulties, had announced in 2015 that it would soon close. But a revolt and a fundraising effort among alumnae and other supporters turned things around and the 350-student school survived. Some experts expect the same type of response in Mills’ circles, but such an attempt faces strong headwinds because of the pandemic’s impact.

‘It’s pretty devastating’

Deep sadness was the reaction of some alumnae.

Brandy Tuzon Boyd graduated from Mills in 1991 and was a junior there during the student strike that led to the retention of women-only undergraduate education there. So far, she said she has not seen strong mobilization to prevent the campus closure.

“It’s pretty devastating,” Tuzon Boyd, who is publisher and editor of a local news website, The Natomas Buzz, in the Sacramento area, said of the announcement. The college “holds a very important place in my heart.”

Lisa Kremer, a Mills graduate who is now an attorney in Tacoma, Washington, joined that two-week-long student strike 30 years ago and described herself as “brokenhearted but not surprised” by the closure news. While she has heard of some possible efforts to protest the decision, she said she does not think the move “is reversible.”

Kremer’s daughter, Nora McCarthy, is a first-year student at Mills and has been living in the dorm there while taking online classes. She wants to stay at Mills as long as possible before transferring because “she loves Mills,” Kremer said.

Notre Dame de Namur University, established in 1851, announced last fall that the school’s leaders “have decided that recruitment of traditional freshman students with a mission of providing a residential college experience is no longer a viable pathway financially” for the university. Its new focus will be on graduate and online programs in art therapy, clinical psychology and education, the school said, adding that excess buildings and land might be leased or sold.

* Story originally published by EdSource.