Last Year a College Died
Last year a college died. It was just a small college in a small town. Perhaps it was a public school; more likely it was private. It could have been in Houlton, ME; or Milton, OR; or Springfield, SD; or Mtn. Home, AR or a similar town in almost any state. All we know is that where once there were teachers and students going about the processes of teaching and learning, and where once buildings and grounds were maintained, now they are not.
We do know that well before the last grades had been recorded and the last student had checked out of the dorm, the post mortem had begun, trying to ascertain why the life had gone out of the body. Why were students no longer attracted to the college and its offerings? Why did those who had once supported the college financially no longer consider it a good investment? Why did community members no longer see that their support was a part of living in a civil society?
And years earlier, as signs of the fatal disease became evident, what remedies were attempted to restore health to the school? Did it die because it refused to undertake remedies? Did it die because the remedies undertaken were unsuccessful? Could any steps have prevented the death, or was death simply the result of social, cultural or economic changes over which the school had little control?
Now a year later, the town has begun to assess what it has lost.
Undeniably, there is less money around. Since the college was one of the largest employers in town, a number of people are now out of work. Some of the more qualified faculty members have been able to move on to another college. A few older ones have elected to retire. Others, too young to retire, have found themselves in the unenviable position of being unable to relocate. Support personnel of the college—almost all local hires—have simply been cut loose to find employment—or not—as they were able. Like the faculty, some staff members have left the community; some have retired, and some are un-employed or under-employed.
Local vendors and service providers for the school—doctors, lawyers, financial institutions, electricians, carpenters, energy companies, grocers, photographers—have noted the loss of business.
But the economic loss to the town is far greater than just the loss of jobs and orders; every segment of the town has been affected. Conventional wisdom is that a dollar spent by a business goes around the community at least three times. The salary paid to the teacher or staff member enters the local economy as payment for goods and services; the landlord and the merchant, in turn, use that payment to hire workers, buy supplies, and maintain property. Salaries above expenses and profits have become savings at the bank, part of which is returned to the community in the form of loans or investments. Now without the original college money, fewer jobs are created; fewer goods and services are offered.
The loss of the students has also affected the economy. Some sectors of the local economy—especially housing, fast food, and entertainment—have grown up around a student population. Now those businesses have withered. Part-time and temporary jobs traditionally filled by students have fewer takers. From another perspective, the pool of graduates to fill positions in local schools and businesses is also gone, so those institutions are having to look outside the region for hires.
With these economic losses has come the loss of tax revenues—both sales and property—to pay for community upkeep and services.
But an even greater loss for many in the town is the loss of cultural and entertainment events. Not too long ago, opportunities to experience culture or entertainment were bound up with the college. An inter-society debate, a piano recital, a lecture from a visiting scholar, or a baseball game filled a void for those living in a pre-television era. Even last year townspeople were able to see the same performers live in the college’s concert series that they saw perform in a national television special.
Now the town has lost the sense of unity with performers—many of which they knew personally. No longer can attendees shake hands with each actor or musician after a performance to congratulate them and wish them well; no longer can they join the vising lecturer or musical performer for dessert and coffee afterward.
Town’s people now go to a city and see better performances; certainly they can see more talented performers on television. But the sense of just dropping in to see a performance from students you know is now gone. As is the pride in the accomplishments of local athletes, actors or musicians as they compete with the college down the road. With the loss of local pride has gone the loss of civic duty, the sense that college students and their programs are worth supporting.
Some townspeople had made a mission of supporting the college. They cheerfully served on boards and committees that helped with hiring and accreditation activities. They attended all the school functions. Above all, they helped with fundraising for capital campaigns and scholarship drives. Giving and serving had become a habit; now the object of giving is gone, leaving a hole in their lives.
It didn’t take the town long to miss the services the college had provided and that they had come to take for granted. Most had come to treat the college library as a public library, dropping by to check out books, find reference materials, read the out-of-town newspapers, pick up a video or recording, or use the computers. Some had taken advantage of the college’s indoor pool for a swim or for swimming lessons for their children. Parents with young children had enrolled them in the federal Head Start program located at the college. Above all, they had depended on the college facilities for community or regional events involving art, music or athletics.
Now the town is forced to watch the high school speech and music contests and sports tournaments being shifted to other towns—with an accompanying loss of revenues.
With students and some faculty and staff gone, the town’s population is now less. Some of the losses hurt a great deal. When the music faculty left, one church lost its choral director; another its organist; the choirs of every church in town are short key voices. Two humanities professors were also licensed ministers, so those too are gone. And all of the community churches are short a deacon, trustee or moderator.
Many faculty and staff had taken leadership roles in the community, so Kiwanis, Lions Club, the board that oversees the food bank, and the park board and even the city council are trying to fill vacancies.
Departing Business Division members took their CPA and tax preparation skills to other places; tech savvy people who could work on sick computers have likewise followed the college elsewhere. The result is that the community has more and more become an appendage of the neighboring city, relying on it for services it can no longer provide for itself.
The town is smaller—and a lot older—now that the college-age population has departed. Sadly, it is also less diverse. The college had attracted both faculty and students from outside the region—even from outside the country. Now the loss of cultural events such as a Chinese New Year’s Party and Diversity Week has made the community that much poorer.
Once a point of community pride, the campus is already starting to look a bit shabby. In the first months, the owners tried to maintain the campus in a pristine state in order to attract potential buyers. When no prospective buyer appeared, the campus became the care of the town.
Campus buildings do not handle the loss of heat and regular maintenance. So the elements have started to take over: already pipes have broken, cracks have opened, leaks have developed, and mildew and mold have begun to form. A few acts of vandalism have resulted in broken windows and some thievery. Birds have entered the broken windows and nested in the gables, littering the floors with their droppings.
Since razing a building is costly, parts of the campus are being fenced off and marked with “no trespassing” signs. The town tries to maintain the lawns, but grass and weeds grow tall between mowings.
The alumni have met and conducted a newspaper campaign to try to save the campus or to repurpose the buildings. But every day that passes decreases the probability of a successful conclusion. For a while there were rumors of the state taking the campus for a prison for juvenile offenders. With dormitories, a gymnasium, classrooms, and office space, the campus would convert easily. The town is of two minds about such a repurposing.
So unless a miracle occurs, a once vibrant campus will slowly decay, living on only in the memory of those who once knew and loved it. And the town mourns its loss.