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Photos of Alderson Broaddus and Notre Dame College’s campus; in the middle, four young women wearing Notre Dame uniforms.

Cooper (far right), Gibson (far left) and two other teammates who transferred from Alderson Broaddus University to Notre Dame College. Both institutions shut down.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons | Josephgg216 / Wikimedia Commons

As a high school senior, Amanda Cooper wasn’t planning to go to college. That changed when she got a message on Instagram.

“Hi! This is Coach Emily with Alderson Broaddus University’s Acrobatics & Tumbling team,” the direct message (DM) opened, the sentence punctuated with a smiley face.

The DM went on to say that the team was recruiting from the class of 2021 and invited Cooper to fill out a questionnaire if she was interested.

She was. Cooper lived in northeastern Maryland, over four hours away from Philippi, the West Virginia town on the far side of the Appalachian Mountains where Alderson Broaddus was located. But she was intrigued at the prospect of trying the sport, which she had never heard of until she received the coach’s message.

“I did gymnastics and cheerleading growing up,” she said. “But acrobatics and tumbling is a new NCAA emerging sport, and it's kind of like a mix of … cheer and gymnastics, so I figured, ‘Why not go check it out?’ My mom and I went and visited. I honestly loved it and committed right on the spot.”

Two years later, though, the university abruptly shut down, just before the start of Cooper’s junior year. Disappointed but determined, she sought to transfer quickly to another institution that offered acrobatics and tumbling, a sport she had come to enjoy. She, along with six other women from the Alderson Broaddus team, ended up at Notre Dame College, just outside of Cleveland.

But seven months later—just last week—Notre Dame announced that it, too, was closing.

“My friends and my family [are] … like, ‘How do you go to two schools that shut down? You’re bad luck,’” she said.

Cooper’s story is unusual, but may become increasingly common as more colleges shut down each year due to shrinking enrollment, changing demographics, financial troubles and more. Just last year, 14 nonprofit institutions officially shut down, affecting about 20,000 students; another 16 for-profit colleges also closed. Research shows that fewer than half of the students who are enrolled at a college when it closes then re-enroll elsewhere. While teach-out agreements developed in partnership with other universities to simplify the transfer process following a closure boost the odds of re-enrollment, it can be hard for closing institutions to accommodate the needs of each student.

“I think for many students, it’s difficult for them to find a good option to finish their program that wouldn’t require them to repeat courses [or] start from scratch in terms of paying for the program,” said Carolyn Fast, director of higher education policy at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “And some students are so thrown by the experience that they think it might be better not to re-enroll and instead pursue getting a loan discharge.”

Both of Cooper’s colleges shared a similar profile—small, private, religiously affiliated institutions—raising the question of whether students are setting themselves up for disappointment when they apply to a similar institution, and whether there is any way for students to truly protect themselves against college closures.

Moving to Notre Dame College

For Cooper, the transition from Alderson Broaddus to Notre Dame was rushed, to say the least; she moved into her room at Notre Dame a mere two weeks after she learned ABU was closing.

It was her boyfriend who first heard the news; he was waiting in the car while she was at an orthodontist appointment when he spotted an email from ABU.

“I get my Invisalign, I come back out, and he goes, ‘Your school just shut down,’” she recalled.

Cooper and her teammates had heard rumors that Alderson Broaddus would close, but she dismissed them as baseless. In reality, the closure had been a long time coming; ABU had been operating at a deficit for nine of the 10 previous years.

“Honestly, I didn’t realize at all they were having financial problems. I heard the rumors and was like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’” said Sydney Gibson, a member of the acrobatics and tumbling team who also transferred to Notre Dame. The campus didn’t appear to be floundering, she said; the facilities weren’t falling apart, and she loved the gym and her dorm.

She and Cooper said they were given little guidance about where to go next. The state ordered Alderson Broaddus to develop teach-out plans by October, but for students who wanted to begin the fall semester on time, waiting around for those agreements to solidify wasn’t an option.

James Garvin, the former chairman of the ABU Board of Trustees and Governors, could not be reached for comment.

Many nearby universities, in partnership with the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, scrambled to enroll displaced ABU students in time for the fall semester, according to News From The States. But Cooper’s decision about where to go next revolved around acrobatics and tumbling.

She didn’t have to look far to find teams that wanted her; offers from acrobatics and tumbling programs began flooding her Instagram inbox as soon as news of ABU’s closure broke. Because the sport is still relatively niche—only about 50 institutions offer it nationwide—coaches are very interested in recruiting students with experience, she said.

Cooper was attracted to Notre Dame, where some of her teammates had already transferred. Plus, NDC’s semester started later in August than most other colleges she was considering, allowing her slightly more time to regroup. And she liked the idea of living in a city versus small-town Philippi, which had been 30 minutes from the nearest Target, she noted with chagrin.

Although Notre Dame was very accommodating about the transfer, she was surprised to find that her major required a significantly different program than that required at Alderson Broaddus.

“When I came here, I didn’t realize that their quote-unquote exercise science program is a biology major with a concentration in exercise science,” she said. “I decided to not even attempt it.”

Since then, she’s switched majors—twice. She finally settled on psychology this spring as a second-semester junior.

But midway through the semester, the unthinkable happened: Notre Dame officials called all students to an assembly where the interim president announced that the college would close at the end of this semester.

Like Cooper, Gibson was shocked—even though she’d been through it before.

“Maybe I’m just naive, but I was very much in the mindset of, ‘there’s no way this place is going down.’ I figured we’d have the alumni—which, apparently, we don’t. I figured we’d have people who’d invest in us if we were in debt,” she said. “Ultimately, I think people gave up and just didn’t want to fight for the school, because … we were not in as bad of a situation as AB was.”

NDC’s closure came after a failed attempt to merge with nearby Cleveland State University; officials also said they tried fundraising, refinancing debt and using pandemic relief funds, to no avail.

Teach-Out Plans Offer Choice

Unlike ABU, however, NDC was quick to present students with transfer options. It partnered with nine different institutions that have agreed to accept NDC students, scheduling a “university fair” March 13 where students will be able to meet representatives of the partner institutions.

“The options available for students depend on their status at NDC,” officials wrote in a press release about the teach-out agreements, explaining that those who had completed at least 60 credits were guaranteed a spot at a partner institution with comparable net tuition and all credits transferred.

Notre Dame officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Both Cooper and Gibson agree that NDC has handled its closure better than ABU did. But Gibson noted that the latest announcement has completely decimated her will to finish her schoolwork.

“Do you know how unmotivating it is to know that this school is going to hell, but you still have to finish the semester and get good grades?” she asked.

The two students are still in the process of deciding where to go next semester. Gibson is debating between two of NDC’s teach-out partners: a public university and another private college where she can continue acrobatics and tumbling.

Cooper wants to continue the sport as well but is hoping to do so at a public college in Maryland, where she can pay in-state tuition. She also recently decided she wants to be an ultrasound technician—a job that requires specialized training she could get at a community college or trade school rather than a four-year institution.

“I’m sitting here [debating], ‘Should I just go home and start sonography school and I can revisit this degree later if I want to? Or should I just finish it out because I’m so close?’” she said.

For both women, money is an issue. Alderson Broaddus and Notre Dame both awarded athletic scholarships, leaving Gibson and Cooper paying little out of pocket to go to college.

“The schools that I’m looking at all have the teach-out agreement. That means, basically, that they’ll take all my credits no matter what, so there’s no worry there. It’s really just about the scholarships,” said Gibson.

Fast believes situations like Cooper’s and Gibson’s are why regulators need to step in and protect students at colleges that are at risk of closure.

“Especially if it’s an abrupt closure, you can end up with a situation where a student is left with credits that they can’t transfer, debt and no degree,” she said. “That can be extremely harmful and destructive to students … many of them sort of have to start from scratch.”

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