Harvard Business School professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years

There are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States, but Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen says that half are bound for bankruptcy in the next few decades.

Christensen is known for coining the theory of disruptive innovation in his 1997 book, "The Innovator's Dilemma." Since then, he has applied his theory of disruption to a wide range of industries, including education.

In his recent book, "The Innovative University," Christensen and co-author Henry Eyring analyze the future of traditional universities, and conclude that online education will become a more cost-effective way for students to receive an education, effectively undermining the business models of traditional institutions and running them out of business.

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Clayton Christensen

At the Innovation + Disruption Symposium in Higher Education in May, Christensen specifically predicted that "50 percent of the 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years."

More recently, he doubled down on his statements, telling 1,500 attendees at Salesforce.org's Higher Education Summit, "If you're asking whether the providers get disrupted within a decade — I might bet that it takes nine years rather than 10."

Christensen is not alone in thinking that online educational resources will cause traditional colleges and universities to close. The U.S. Department of Education and Moody's Investors Service project that in the coming years, closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple, and mergers will double.

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The Baker Library at Harvard Business School

Fortunately, Christensen says that there is one thing that online education will not be able to replace. In his research, he found that most of the successful alumni who gave generous donations to their alma maters did so because a specific professor or coach inspired them.

Among all of these donors, "Their connection wasn't their discipline, it wasn't even the college," says Christensen. "It was an individual member of the faculty who had changed their lives."

"Maybe the most important thing that we add value to our students is the ability to change their lives," he explained. "It's not clear that that can be disrupted."

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