Digest No. 06 - June 2019

Invisible Colleges, Four Decades Down the Road

Tarrant, M., N. Bray, and S. Katsinas. 2018. “The Invisible Colleges Revisited: An Empirical Review.” Journal of Higher Education 89 (3): 341–367.


The purpose of this study was to examine empirically small private colleges with limited resources. The authors grounded their study in Astin and Lee’s (1972) report, The Invisible Colleges: A Profile of Small, Private Colleges with Limited Resources, and in Clark Kerr’s designation of these colleges as those with smaller enrollments, less selective admissions policies, lower national recognition, and often threatened by closure.

With these definitions as a guide, the authors used Adrianna Kezar’s theoretical work on organizational change to describe how the 491 colleges identified by Astin and Lee have changed over time, from 1967–1968 to 2012–2013. Astin “graciously shared” (p. 347) the original list of invisible institutions with one of the authors of this study. The authors then employed the same methodologies used by Astin and Lee four decades ago to determine how these colleges have fared over time. Replicating 1972 procedures, the authors used the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data to identify each college’s status in 2012, including information on closures, enrollment patterns, selectivity indicators, religious affiliation, gender patterns, and geographic distribution. In addition, the authors examined some trends specific to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).


The authors frame their discussion in light of the “durability” (p. 358) these colleges have exhibited over 45 years. Specifically, 72 percent of all of the colleges designated as invisible in the data collection period of 1967–1968 remained open in 2012–2013, a trend that “speaks to their adaptability in a changing higher education environment, without changing their inherent commitment to providing higher education in the private sector” (p. 358). The authors also point out that 354 of the original 491 institutions not only kept their doors open, but also experienced increases in enrollment and selectivity.

One of the most “striking” (p. 361) findings of this study was in enrollment shifts from full to part-time over the past 45 years. In the original data collection period, more than half of these colleges enrolled 90 percent or more of their students full-time; by 2012–2013, that number had shrunk to one-third. The authors credit campus leaders with staying on top of national college-going trends regarding the changing student population and with adopting strategies for recruiting women and adult learners as strategic means for staying afloat.

Much of the information on selectivity was subject to unavoidable methodological issues (for example, evolving selectivity metrics) due to changes in IPEDS data over time. Given these limitations, the authors noted, “Overall, we see that the invisible college survived and grew by following the overall trends that exist in the larger system as a whole: increased enrollment, higher selectivity, increased enrollment of part-time students, and enrollment of an increasing number of female students” (p. 361).

The authors also examined religious affiliation, gender patterns, and geographic distribution as well as some trends relating to HBCUs. Regarding religious affiliation, the authors note that “a strong majority of the persisting invisible colleges continue to be affiliated with a religious denomination” (p. 360). These institutions also enrolled women at a slightly higher rate (60 percent) than their non-invisible elite counterparts (57 percent). Most of the 80 invisible colleges that closed over the 45-year period were located in the Midwest (49 percent), followed by the Northeast (28 percent), South (11 percent), and West (10 percent). Of particular interest, invisible HBCUs persisted at a higher rate (82 percent) than other invisible colleges (77 percent).


Campus leaders should be encouraged by the findings from this study. The majority of these invisible colleges are doing well, far beyond expectations set forth by Astin and Lee and Kerr 45 years ago. Although the authors could not provide a step-by-step analysis of each college’s strategy for sustainability and resiliency, they discuss the importance of population ecology and its role in innovative enrollment strategies that go beyond targeting one specific group of students.
Although it may be tempting to examine only trends and benchmark data of institutions demographically and characteristically similar to one’s own, findings from this article suggest that invisible college leaders demonstrated a vested interest in staying abreast of national college-going trends as well as of best practices at other institutions (such as large public universities or community colleges). This was a factor in their institutions’ persisting to the present day. Campus leaders may want to expand their vision of what constitutes peer and aspirant institutions in light of these findings.

About the Authors


Melissa Tarrant is the director of the Advising Center at the University of West Georgia.

Nathaniel Bray is a professor of higher education administration and associate director of the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Stephen Katsinas is a professor, College of Education, and director of the Educational Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Astin, A. W., and C. B. Lee. 1972. The Invisible Colleges: A Profile of Small, Private Colleges with Limited Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill.