Students and employees are rallying to save Chester College of New England amid concern the tiny art-focused institution won’t be able to pay its bills.
Since learning a week ago that the 144-student institution in rural New Hampshire was in grave danger of closing under the weight of a deficit of around $750,000, supporters have raised $70,000. They hope to come up with more at a weekend fund-raiser .
One student returned his scholarship money. High school seniors accepted for the fall are donating, not withdrawing. And college representatives plan to address the town council and plead their case. Still, the dean of students, Byron Petrakis, acknowledged, “the odds are long.”
“I’m trying to be realistic on the one hand,” Petrakis said, “but I don’t want to be despairing. It would be a loss of more than just a place. It would be preventing some voices from ever even being heard.”
Voices like Anna Johnson’s. The junior fine arts major applied to Chester with a 1.7 high school grade-point average and few prospects for higher education. But after showing her portfolio to Chester professors, they accepted her and offered a merit scholarship. Now Johnson is on the dean’s list and rallying to save Chester.
“College was never really on the table for me,” she said. “I didn’t think art was useful or that my talent was ever going to be recognized.
“I’ve never been given an opportunity like this and I’m not willing to let it go.”
Beth Ann Miller did well in high school, but couldn’t find her place after enrolling at another college. When she transferred to Chester for her sophomore year, things changed. A 2009 creative writing alumna who now works in the admissions office, Miller said the college’s students need it to stay open.
“It’s important because it’s a very specific niche for very specific students,” she said. “It’s this quiet little campus with a lot going on within it.”
Like many colleges, Chester suffered during the recession. The college's limited aid funds mean that its discount rate is 20 percent -- much less than competitors -- so it's hard to attract students when other colleges offered twice as much aid, said Laura Ives, vice president for academic affairs and students.
And at an institution that counts its students in the dozens and not thousands, a dropoff in enrollment is especially painful. There were around 220 students in 2007, 75 more than today. Ives maintains there are positive signs, as more students from out-of-state apply and the academic credentials of recent classes improve.
But when financial struggles this severe are aired publicly, small private colleges don’t tend to stay open. Dana College, a Lutheran institution in a Nebraska rivertown, shuttered in 2010  after a sale to a for-profit buyer fell through. Mississippi's Wesley College closed  that same year after failing to pay off debt and attract donations. Lambuth University in Tennessee closed  last year after losing accreditation and struggling financially. Iowa's Waldorf College ceased to exist in its previous form after it was sold to a for-profit entity .
Chester's backers remain hopeful. The hope is to have 350 students within three years, a goal Ives is confident a new admissions team is on track to accomplish. Chester has received 35 deposits for the fall and expects an entering class of 66-70. About 90 upperclassmen will return, meaning the college will see modest growth if its projections hold true. The college continues to accept applications.
The funding shortfall happened after Chester borrowed money this year to cover a deficit. By its very nature, President Robert Baines wrote in a letter to campus , Chester is vulnerable to financial troubles.
“Because the college is so small, it always has faced financial challenges and is dependent on a sufficient number of students to be financially viable,” wrote Baines, who didn’t respond to a message seeking an interview.
If Chester can raise enough money to cover the $750,000 debt, Petrakis and Ives are confident the college will be financially solvent going forward.
That’s a big if. Ives hopes to collect a few hundred thousand dollars in the coming weeks, which she believes would give the trustees the confidence to keep the college open while the fund-raising continues. Employees and students believe they can also cut costs significantly without hurting the academic product.
Baines wrote that the college is exploring mergers with other institutions but that the goal is to keep it operating independently. He added that students’ costs, credits and graduation timelines will be considered “if changes are necessary.”
This weekend’s fund-raiser will feature a silent auction of student artwork and readings by two noted authors. Petrakis is encouraged by the early fundraising results and hopeful this weekend will help keep his college open for the long term.
“We have the capacity, once we’re informed and once we’re energized, we can do some incredible things,” he said. “We use the analogy of the little engine that could. To me, that’s what Chester College is all about.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Chester's student body decreased by 75 over two years. In fact, that decrease occurred over five years.