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Lincoln College closure leaves some students struggling to adjust

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After a nearby college in Lincoln, Illinois, announced its intention to downsize, Aundrae Williams and her friends joked that their school could be next. Then he saw his teachers crying.

On March 30, after 157 years of history, its president, David Gerlach, announced the permanent closure of Lincoln College.

Jaylah Bolden was stunned. Like many, she saw Lincoln as more than a school. She spent her fall freshman year at another college, but would ride the five hour train to central illinois just to couch surf, attend classes, and sneak into Lincoln’s dining room. By the time she was officially transferred, she already felt like home.

“Lincoln was the first place in my life where I had peace,” said Bolden, who grew up going around houses with relatives. “When the school closed, I had nowhere to go.”

Six months after Lincoln closed in May, many are still wondering if more could have been done to save the college. In the aftermath, students struggled to adapt, sometimes returning to places they had hoped to leave. And Lincoln’s story is becoming more mainstream. According to Higher Ed Dive, nearly 30 nonprofit colleges have merged or closed permanently since the pandemic. What happened to those who remain?

Lincoln College was a small, private college in a rural town – the only institution of higher learning named after the American president during his lifetime. But instead of attracting local students, it attracted plenty from three hours north: “Lincoln College was like a Chicago neighborhood,” said Willie Spratt, a 2022 graduate and former class president. Even though the city is 95% white, the college was registered as a predominantly black institution. More than 40% of its students were the first in their families to attend college, and 58% came from households with annual incomes of less than $30,000. Three out of five students were eligible for the Pell Grant.

Students, alumni and faculty described the community as tightly knit. And, for many, a “second chance”. “Lincoln was the first time in my life where I felt like I had a chance,” said former student Julia Figueroa. For some, it was also a haven from gun violence.

In February, Lincoln had just reported its second-highest spring enrollment in a decade. New employees were still being hired. But the school had been struggling with operating deficits for years. Between 2013 and 2018, its $40 million endowment was halved. The pandemic has wiped out recruitment, retention and fundraising efforts. Finally December, a ransomware attack blocked access to institutional data. By the time administrators regained access in March, fall enrollment projections were well below expectations. President Gerlach announced that the only way to keep the school open was to make a miracle gift of $20 million.

Dozens of students confronted Gerlach expressing their grief and frustration. In a video posted on Facebook, student Kewan Thomas told Gerlach: “We have children in this room who may die when they return to their town.

Three months later, Norvell Meadows, a frequent visitor to Lincoln College, was shot and killed outside his grandmother’s house in Chicago.

“I couldn’t even understand,” Bolden said. Meadows’ experience at Lincoln mirrored his own: they had spent a lot of time on campus even without being enrolled. “He was trying to stay away from the violence in Chicago,” she said.

His friends called him Vell. “We were all eating in the cafeteria and he would get up and start singing,” his friend Aundrae Williams said. “He was always laughing.” According to Williams, Meadows wanted to enroll the following semester to play basketball. He had also recently become a new father.

“Everyone on campus knew Vell, everyone knew he didn’t come here, and everyone loved him,” Bolden said. “He was part of Lincoln.”

After the closure was announced, Klaudia Blaszczyk, a swimming rookie from Warsaw, was one of 60 international students sent scrambling to keep their visas. “It was extreme pressure for me,” she said. And with the war in Ukraine so close to her sister and single mother, she worried about what would happen if they had to evacuate and join her in the United States. Some of Klaudia’s teachers have offered to open their houses – a common experience in Lincoln.

Students and employees desperately organized to attract large donations in an effort to save the college. A social media campaign titled “I Bleed Purple” highlighted student stories that emphasized Lincoln’s sense of family on campus. “But as we started to gain ground, that goal post kept moving,” said Scott Raper, a faculty member who helped lead student fundraising efforts. Within weeks, the president raised the target to $50, then $100 million. “It’s really hard to set goals if you don’t know what the real goal of the fundraising campaign is,” Raper said.

Gerlach said he had to increase the goal after students and faculty began transferring to other schools, which made the college even more difficult to maintain. “I didn’t want to give false hope just to close in two or three years,” he said. Teachers such as Raper say they wish the school would fight harder. In March 2015, Sweet Briar College, a small campus near Lynchburg, Va., was saved from closing after alumni came together to raise nearly $29 million over several months.

Gerlach ceased all fundraising efforts after two weeks: “We could have operated another year. But that would have caused the plane to crash.

Months after closing, and with leaves now falling on empty lots, Gerlach is still sitting in University Hall waiting for a buyer for the campus. Among the dozens of pieces of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, he often reads a poster that quotes the president: “The difference between history’s boldest achievements and its most staggering failures is often, quite simply, diligent will to persevere.

“We were leading the fight, persevering as a college,” Gerlach said. “But…we’re closed.”

According to the Illinois Council on Higher Education and Gerlach, a closing team helped transfer students throughout the summer. Now down to a part-time employee, they are waiting for a status report for all students.

Williams was part of Lincoln’s last promotion. He is now getting his master’s degree and coaching college basketball.

Blaszczyk transferred to Culver-Stockton College, the only institution that accepted her within the time limits of her visa. “You don’t feel at home here,” she says. “It wasn’t a choice we wanted to make.” She dropped out of competitive swimming since the college doesn’t have a team.

Bolden is now enrolled at National Louis University in Chicago, where she is studying criminal justice. But the effects of the pandemic compounded by the shutdown were too much for some of his friends, a number of whom are no longer enrolled in school. “They’ve lost faith,” Bolden said. “We didn’t drop out of school. The school has abandoned us.

She thinks about how this semester could have been Meadow’s first at Lincoln. “We built our house there,” Jaylah said, “Vell was going to come with us.”