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Chris Gash for Money

Annie Baker was halfway through her junior year at Green Mountain College when she found out it would be her last semester. Away at a partner college for the semester, she learned her liberal arts college in Vermont would be closing four months later via texts from her friends still on campus.

"We were seven hours away without our community when we found out,” she said.

Baker says that there had been rumors floating around campus since her first year that the college might close, but no one had seemed to take it seriously.

“We were aware that Green Mountain wasn’t doing the best financially,” she says, “but we just thought it was a joke that we’d actually close.”

Green Mountain’s closure came more than a year before the coronavirus hit in March, forcing many colleges to shutter their physical campuses and pivot to online learning. Those short-term campus shutdowns have been costly for all institutions. But the longer-term economic fallout from the coronavirus could lead to more scenarios like Green Mountain’s — pushing some colleges that were already on a financial precipice over the edge.

Since 2015, more than 50 public and nonprofit institutions have closed or merged, according to an analysis by Education Dive. At least eight colleges and universities have announced permanent shutdowns or mergers since March. Colleges are dealing with multi-million dollar price tags to upgrade campus technology, plus enrollment declines, reduced earnings from endowments and massive state budget cuts.

Baker says she was able to transfer all of her credits and financial aid to Prescott College in Arizona, where she’ll earn her bachelor’s in environmental studies in December. Many students don’t have as smooth a transition after a college closes down, losing both credits and money if transfer institutions won’t accept all of their previous coursework. Depending on how far a student is along in their education, closures may also extend the time it takes to earn a degree if they have to repeat courses.

Susan Baldridge is a psychology professor and provost at Middlebury College and co-author of The College Stress Test: Tracking Institutional Futures Across a Crowded Market, published in February. Her research has also found that the most at-risk colleges have disproportionate numbers of low-income students and Black students. Those groups of students already have lower retention and graduation rates. A forced interruption runs the risk of them dropping out altogether.