There is something in our affinity for the institution of education that makes it seem immutable and timeless. Schools that have been part of our lives will always be there. New schools will rise as communities grow, but it seems unfair or tragic when schools disappear as communities wane. Yet the reality is that the merging and shuttering of schools, colleges, and universities in America is not the new normal; it is normal.
In a working paper by Virginia Sapiro of Boston University, preparatory to a book on the topic (HT John Gulla for sharing it with me) we see hard data on the opening and closure of American colleges and universities for more than a century. These rise and fall with changing demographics, movement of population, major geo-political events, and the economy. In other words, institutions of higher education respond to the world around them a lot like other sectors in a competitive market place.
When a local hardware store goes out of business, an airline merges with a larger competitor, two churches join forces in one location, or a product line is disrupted by new technology, we may shed a temporary tear, but we generally understand that these are reflections of our market-based system at work. When a college closes, we see it as the end of an era, the loss of a special resource that we expected would never be depleted.
The paper by Sapiro shows that the current spate of college closings, many in the northeast, is really nothing unusual. She also reminds us that “virtually no college or university has ever lived off of tuition dollars alone; they can’t”. Schools live because communities of stakeholders support them in very tangible ways, and if that base of support thins, for any number of reasons that may have little to do with the quality of learning they provide, mergers and closures naturally follow.
What does this mean for K-12? There is no reason to believe that similar forces are not at work. The college canary in the coal mine should be blazingly obvious for private schools, as virtually no private school lives off of tuition alone (and even if one did, the number of families who can afford that tuition is shrinking every year). But we see similar forces at work in public schools, where district choice, waning birth rates, and shrinking population in rural areas mean that elementary and secondary school closures are inevitable.
Not to make this personal, but my new book coming out this year is all about how schools and districts can best fight their way through this period of evolutionary right-sizing of the education market. And the first critical step is to recognize that none of us are immune from the inevitable march of market evolution.