When it comes to determining how many colleges and universities are in the U.S., it’s a number in flux.
The short answer: There were 3,982 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the U.S. as of the 2019-2020 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The long answer: The total number depends on how university branch campuses are counted, as numerous institutions have satellite locations. The number also is subject to change in a higher education landscape that has experienced numerous recent college closures and mergers.
Education is “like any industry in the sense that you’ve got activity with firms growing, opening, closing, changing, merging continually,” says Guilbert C. Hentschke, dean emeritus at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education.
Though the U.S. Department of Education tallies nearly 4,000 colleges and universities, U.S. News included just 1,452 schools in the 2021 rankings. To be eligible for inclusion in the Best Colleges rankings, a school must be regionally accredited and offer four-year undergraduate degree programs. Colleges that offer only associate degrees are not ranked, nor are schools with fewer than 200 students.
The Number of Public vs. Private Colleges
Of the 3,982 institutions listed by NCES, there were 1,625 public four-year and two-year colleges; 1,660 private nonprofit four-year and two-year schools; and 697 for-profit schools in fall 2019. The data divides the institutions into subcategories such as four-year colleges and universities and two-year schools, often known as community colleges.
Overall, the number of colleges in the U.S. has been on a steady decline since the 2012-2013 school year, particularly in the for-profit sector.
“Colleges are closing because they are struggling financially. Many for-profits closed because their enrollment fell off substantially in large part due to adverse publicity, challenges with their students getting financial aid and challenges that the (federal government) posed,” Lucie Lapovsky, principal at Florida-based Lapovsky Consulting, former president of Mercy College in New York and an economist wrote in an email. She references stricter regulations on the for-profit sector as one contributing factor.
What Drives College Closures
While for-profit academic institutions have struggled in recent years with many closing, so too have small liberal arts colleges.
“Among the private colleges, those most susceptible to closing are the 800 private colleges with enrollment of (fewer) than 1,000 students. Schools that are small, schools that are almost entirely dependent on student revenues,” Lapovsky says, adding that vulnerable institutions are threatened by a lack of adequate nontuition funding streams.
Recent examples of such schools shutting down include Becker College in Massachusetts, which announced that it will close this year due to financial struggles exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Similarly, Mills College in California announced plans to wind down operations. Already struggling financially, the women’s college cited challenges brought on by COVID-19 as a reason for closing.
Hentschke notes that there are many factors in play when it comes to college closures.
“It’s a combination of size, market location, market recognition and a brand that can either keep you afloat or conspire against you,” Hentschke says. Despite market shifts, he notes the number of schools that close or merge is “relatively small in a given year.”
Demographics also play a role. The declining birthrate in the U.S. means colleges compete for fewer undergraduate students.
“You look across all institutions and that number is going down, not up,” Hentschke says.
Instead of closing, some colleges merge with other institutions. In these cases, one college essentially absorbs another with some possible carryover of faculty and staff, Lapovsky explains. She points to the merger of Boston University and the former Wheelock College in Massachusetts, in which the former created the Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, thus keeping the Wheelock name alive.
Prospective students worried about a college’s financial health and the potential for closure should look for red flags such as continually declining enrollment, budget deficits and a school’s diminishing endowment, experts say. These details often can be found online in college fact books, or interested students can contact a school directly for the information.
Finding the Right College Fit
With nearly 4,000 schools including branch campuses to choose from, students have an abundance of undergraduate degree options available whether they prefer a research-oriented university, a small liberal arts college or a trade school.
That number can be overwhelming and “stress-inducing for students,” says Kelly Fraser, owner and principal consultant at Green Apple College Guidance & Education Enrichment, which has offices in the Boston and Washington, D.C., areas. To help trim those options down, she advises students to develop criteria to determine what matters most and then find colleges that best align with those priorities.
“It really depends on what’s important to them,” Fraser says, citing location, academic programs or other factors.
To get a feel for a college, Fraser advises prospective undergraduate students to visit and familiarize themselves with the campus and degree programs and “talk to professors while they’re on campus, talk to students and alumni. It’s really about being a good consumer.”
While students living in the U.S. have typically been able to take numerous college tours, that can be more difficult for international applicants, though virtual options have helped provide more access to students amid the pandemic. Students overseas often turn to free resources such as EducationUSA, a network of more than 400 advising centers in more than 175 countries supported by the U.S. Department of State, or to paid consultants such as Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors.
“It’s just a very overwhelming process for a child in another country to know what to do,” Adler says.
Often, she says, international students begin their college search by looking at college rankings. “If it’s not on a rankings list, they don’t want to hear about it,” Adler says, adding that she shows students various ranking systems.
Another consideration is the undergraduate degree program that interests an international applicant. Adler works with students to identify which schools to apply to, encouraging them to consider other factors such as the international student population. She adds that “location is very important,” noting that the ability to easily fly to their home country is a priority for many international students.
Fraser says that undergraduate students entering a school typically want to be a member of the community and to network with other alumni when they join the workforce.
“It’s important for our families to invest in schools that they believe will thrive,” Fraser says, explaining that student connections to their alma mater often extend well beyond graduation.