Citing Financial Headwinds and Enrollment Woes, a Small College Says It Will Close

On the brink of its 200th anniversary, Cazenovia College, in central New York state, announced on Wednesday that it plans to close at the end of this academic year, citing financial challenges exacerbated by the pandemic and shrinking enrollment.

In an announcement on its website, the college said a series of problems had plunged it into an inescapable financial hole. The announcement referenced its recent default on a $25-million loan.

“We’re deeply disappointed that it has come to this,” Kenneth C. Gardiner, chair of the Cazenovia College Board of Trustees, said in a statement sent to The Chronicle. “Considerable time and effort have been spent on improving the college’s financial position over the past several years. Unfortunately, the headwinds and market conditions were insurmountable, leading to a projected deficit of several-million dollars for next year.”

Cazenovia, founded in 1824, joins a small group of institutions that have announced closures this year, including Lincoln College and Marymount California University. While Covid raised fears that college closures could spike, that trend didn’t materialize right away; federal relief aid helped insulate institutions like Cazenovia from the initial shock.

Between 25 and 75 colleges have shuttered each year since 2004, according to federal data; 120 colleges, an unusually large number, closed in 2016. More than 80 percent of closures have involved for-profit institutions.

It’s harder to close down a public or private nonprofit college, as their alumni bases and local communities tend to drum up strong opposition. But Cazenovia is part of a particularly vulnerable group: colleges with fewer than 1,000 students enrolled.

Such institutions tend to have precarious finances and increasingly struggle to differentiate their academic offerings in a crowded marketplace. The colleges run on tuition dollars, but tuition can only be raised so much.

At Cazenovia, enrollment woes have become severe. Since the college’s enrollment peaked at more than 1,000 students, enrollment has dropped by over 40 percent, the announcement stated. Cazenovia’s current enrollment is 746 students, according to its website.

Cazenovia isn’t alone: Nearly 1.3 million students disappeared from colleges during the pandemic, according to reporting by The Chronicle.

The pandemic had a dramatic impact on Cazenovia’s recruitment and fund raising. The college said it made major investments in technology and campus-safety measures during the pandemic — all while more students were postponing college or taking leaves of absence.

“We have worked tirelessly to strengthen the financial position of the college through fund-raising campaigns, adding graduate offerings, streamlining transfer pathways, and exploring alternative options,” David Bergh, who was voted by the board as the college’s president in February, said in a statement. But with a small endowment, Bergh said, long-term viability became impossible to achieve.

The college’s financial troubles were mounting before the pandemic. Cazenovia defaulted on a $25-million bond payment due in September, as reported by Back in 2019, Cazenovia borrowed the money to refinance its long-term debt and line of credit, and to fund maintenance projects on and improvements to the campus.

The fall semester, which ends on December 15, will proceed as scheduled. In the spring, the college will continue to hold classes and events, including athletics competitions. During that time, the college said it would assist students with their plans for transferring. Graduation for the current senior class will still be held on May 13, 2023.

The college has entered “teach-out transfer agreements” with other institutions to try to maximize transfer credits, preserve financial-aid packages, and secure enrollment elsewhere by the fall of 2023. Arrangements are underway for storing student records after the college closes.

“We really are a family on this campus,” Bergh said in the statement. “It is an extremely difficult time for all of us, but we remain committed to students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”

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