At the Dowling College campus in Brookhaven, N.Y., on Long Island’s south shore, a dormitory is shuttered, as are a cafeteria, a bookstore, and some classrooms in the main academic building. Unused shuttle buses sit in an otherwise empty parking lot. “There’s a lot of fear here,” says Steven Fournier, an aviation management major who will graduate in May. “It’s not the same college I arrived at.”
Dowling, with a $2 million endowment, epitomizes the plight of many small private colleges that depend almost entirely on tuition for revenue. Soaring student debt, competition from online programs, and poor job prospects for graduates are shrinking schools’ applicant pools. The number of private four-year colleges that closed or were acquired doubled to about 10 annually in the four years through 2011, from about five a year before 2008, according to a Vanderbilt University study. All of the schools that failed in recent years had fewer than 1,000 students, and most had endowments of about $1 million.
“What we’re concerned about is the death spiral—this continuing downward momentum for some institutions,” says Susan Fitzgerald, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service (MCO), adding that expenses are outpacing revenue at 60 percent of the more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities her company tracks. Moody’s downgraded the credit ratings of 141 institutions in the five years through 2013, up from 59 in the prior five-year period.