From 2010 through 2012, freshman enrollment at more than a quarter of U.S. private four-year schools declined 10% or more, according to federal data The Wall Street Journal analyzed. From 2006 through 2009, fewer than one in five experienced a similar decline.

The trajectory reflects demographic and technological changes, along with questions about a college degree’s value that are challenging centuries-old business models. The impact is uneven: Some wealthy, selective private colleges are flourishing, while many others suffer.

Schools on the losing end are responding with closures, layoffs, cutbacks, mergers and new recruitment strategies. Many see these as the first signs of a shakeout that will reorder the industry.

“I think it’s fair to say 30% of these private schools won’t exist in a decade,” said Jonathan Henry, vice president for enrollment at Husson University, a private school in Bangor, Maine, whose 2013 first-year enrollment was 17% lower than in 2009. “A lot of these schools will have to learn to live with less.” Husson has built graduate programs to offset the declines, he said.

… Between 1966 and 2010, college-student numbers doubled as baby boomers, and then their children, enrolled. The number of high-school graduates peaked in 2011 and is projected to fall or flatten until 2024.

That stagnation coincides with new lower-cost online alternatives. The number of college students taking at least one online course nearly doubled to 45% between 2008 and 2013, according to a survey by Crux Research, a market-research firm.

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