Courtesy of Judson College
After teetering on the edge of closure for months, Judson College's Board of Trustees voted Thursday to close the Baptist women’s college in July.
The college, located in Marion, Ala., had been in poor financial shape for years, but its financial outlook worsened in recent months even though the college raised more than $2.53 million this academic year.
Enrollment, which had been declining for more than a decade, was dismal this spring, with only 145 students enrolled. Only 80 students were expected to return for the upcoming academic year, and only a dozen new students had committed to attend Judson in the fall.
The board voted in April to approve a budget for the 2021-22 academic year, betting on new donor leads that could result in significant gifts to the college. Those gifts never materialized, according to a college press release.
Two days before Thursday's board meeting, one of Judson’s creditors called a note on a loan that was due and was not renewed.
“New donors did not materialize, student retention is much lower than expected and mounting debt pressures have increased,” W. Mark Tew, president of Judson, told The Alabama Baptist. “The combined effect of these three items left us no choice.”
A Judson spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
The college will begin closure procedures with a small number of employees in the coming months.
"The College will make every effort to provide assistance in employment transition and give as much notice as possible for its employees," the press release said.
Judson will also file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
The college will cease academic operations July 31 after its summer term ends. Residence halls will close as scheduled after the May summer term. Continuing students can work with the college to create transfer plans.
Donors who have already pledged gifts to the college for the 2021-22 academic year will not be obligated to complete them.
A Five-Month Roller Coaster
The college first faced its potential closure in December, when Tew implored alumnae and donors to help the college meet a $500,000 fundraising goal. Without that cash, the college wouldn’t have been able to keep its doors open through the spring term.
Judson exceeded its short-term goal and raised $1.3 million before the new year. College officials quickly announced Judson would remain open and begin the spring term Jan. 20.
In February, a report by Fuller Higher Ed Solutions outlined the challenges the college faced -- student interest in single-gender institutions is declining, student demographics are shifting and students’ perception of Christian colleges has changed.
In addition, enrollment at Judson has declined since the 2003-04 academic year, and the college has struggled to balance its budget.
“Financial challenges like these are not unique to Judson and did not happen overnight; they are the result of sliding enrollment, accumulated deferred maintenance, decisions by the previous administration, and gaps in data shared with the board about the college’s condition,” the report said. “The pandemic contributed by increasing the pace of the impact, but the college was already in a difficult financial condition prior to March 2020.”
The report offered several options to the small private college and emphasized two: close with dignity or invest in a turnaround.
A turnaround would have been expensive. The college needed to raise at least $40 million over five years, according to the Fuller report.
In March, the college launched a second, more ambitious fundraising push, but it was less successful than the first. After a month of fundraising, the college came up $3.7 million short of its $5 million goal.
Despite the shortfall, the board voted in April to approve the budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year and put in motion several components of the Fuller report, including pursuing necessary capital improvements, rebranding and marketing efforts, and a curriculum review.
Meanwhile, the college’s uncertain future damaged its enrollment prospects, and the number of returning students fell to roughly 80. The cancellation of three preview days for prospective students and the challenges of virtual recruitment contributed to Judson’s minuscule incoming class.
Ultimately, the ambitious turnaround goals set by the board slipped further out of reach, and the board voted at its previously scheduled May meeting to close the 183-year-old women’s college.
“We know this was the right decision, but there is not a person here whose heart isn’t broken over this,” Tew said in a statement. “I share the heartbreak of this decision that is felt by generations of Judson students, faculty, and friends."