How Journalists Distort Higher Education: Fact Checking “College Closures”

Travis Burchart
4 min readJan 7, 2024

According to The Hill:

Hundreds of post-secondary institutions close every year, [emphasis added] leaving thousands of students from both for-profit and non-profit schools without a clear track to finishing their degrees.

If we’re assuming an honest press, this means:

1. “Hundreds” is defined as “the numbers between 100 and 999.” Thus, according to the title, “between 100 and 999” colleges …

2. … close “each year,” meaning this happens annually.

Put another way, The Hill is asserting — plainly and unequivocally — that:

1. between 100 and 999 colleges close, and

2. this happens regularly every year.

College Closures: The Numbers

Let’s assume journalists have a responsibility to be accurate. This assumption — truth and precision — is critical to a free and unbiased press. So how accurate is The Hill’s article?

According to The Hechinger Report (Nov. 2022):

Thirty-five colleges and universities shut down in 2021, a 70 percent decrease from 2016, when a peak of 120 colleges shuttered, according to an analysis of federal data by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). For-profit operators ran more than 80 percent of the 861 institutions that ceased operations between 2004 and 2021. [emphasis added]

And this from Inside Higher Ed (Dec. 2023):

Over the course of 2023, 14 nonprofit four-year colleges announced closures. [emphasis added] (A handful of others announced mergers or acquisitions.) A 15th institution, the King’s College, did not announce it was closing but has essentially shut down, a move apparently necessitated by financial issues coupled with a loss of accreditation.

And lastly, from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2023):

[C]ollege closures are rare. … Data from the federal Postsecondary Education Participants System, which tracks institutions that disburse federal financial aid, indicate that somewhere between five to 12 discrete four-year nonprofit colleges have closed annually over the past eight years, a typical pace going back to 2000. [emphasis added]

A Chronicle analysis of the same data found similar results. Since 2000, as few as five stand-alone private nonprofit colleges have closed in a single year, in 2001 and 2005, and as many as 21, in 2018.

EY-Parthenon, a management-consulting company, also tracks college closings. According to its count, which includes for-profit institutions, more than 300 colleges have closed since 2000. Just under half of the institutions that closed were for-profit ….

Fact Checking The Hill

Hundreds of post-secondary institutions close every year, [emphasis added] leaving thousands of students from both for-profit and non-profit schools [emphasis added] without a clear track to finishing their degrees.

Based on the data, it’s sloppy (and misleading) to say that “hundreds of post-secondary institutions close every year.” The truth … it’s a number closer to ten, focusing on non-profit colleges. But the Hill lumps “for-profit and non-profit schools” into one bucket … i.e., “post-secondary institutions.” The reader is left to believe (wrongly!) that hundreds of nonprofit four-year colleges are closing every year. The title reinforces this:

Hundreds of colleges [emphasis added] close each year. Do their students still have to pay their loans?

The generic “college” conjures up “nonprofit four-year colleges” … the Harvards, MITs, and Stanfords of this world. “For profit” institutions — the institutions that dominate closures — don’t come to mind. Simply saying “college” is either lazy or deliberate; closures become a crisis for all colleges and universities. Changing the title (i.e., making it truer) highlights the trickery:

Hundreds of “for profit schools” close each year. Do their students still have to pay their loans?

Which is more frightening: “college” closures or “for profit school” closures? The former is a mass crisis; the latter is a niche problem. The Hill blurs the lines, using the big generic to hide the small specific. It’s akin to fish attacks, which average about 70 annually … whereby “fish,” I only mean “sharks.”

All this to say, most higher ed reporting is garbage. When it comes to college, journalists paint a negative picture regardless of the truth. They focus on singular data. They use a few stories to represent everyone. They rarely provide the pros with the cons. With a bit of foggy language, The Hill upholds this tradition, transforming college closures into an epidemic … an epidemic that simply doesn’t exist.



Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life