As the coronavirus wound its way through the U.S., shutting down college campuses and stressing their finances, eyes turned to the smaller institutions with generally shaky budgets.
Higher education pundits predicted more widespread, permanent closures, many of which did not materialize. However, some colleges couldn’t keep their enrollment up.
One of those was St. Louis Christian College, a metropolitan nonprofit religious institution, with only a few dozen students.
Its operations have almost entirely merged into Central Christian College of the Bible, as the governing boards of the two institutions gave final approval for a merger in April after an initial greenlight in October last year.
At 170 students last fall, Central Christian College of the Bible is a small institution. We spoke with David Fincher, president of the college, about challenges he encountered during consolidation and the future of smaller, religious institutions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HIGHER ED DIVE: Tell me more about the history of the two colleges. What prompted this merger?
DAVID FINCHER: Our schools are very similar. We have an overlapping base of support. We recruit from a lot of the same places. In reality, we are a rural version and they were a more metropolitan version of the same institution — same accreditation programs, same constituents for the most part. We've known people from there, we've hired people from there. They've hired people from here. It’s just been a collegial relationship through the years. I've had a relationship with the last two presidents on a friendship level.
Over the last three years, their enrollment took a pretty serious downturn, partly because of some public relations problems regarding Ferguson — they are in the area — and partly because COVID restrictions in their county were stronger than in other places. They had some controversies in the past people weren’t letting go of.
Last summer, when they didn't reach a key enrollment goal, their president reached out to me. Their board had already agreed that if they didn’t reach the goal, they had to do something else. The president asked if I would be interested in merging, I said we definitely were and we started a long conversation that day.
Over the past year, we’ve been working out the details of that.
What’s been the big push lately to complete the consolidation?
This has really been a foregone conclusion since October. There are really only a couple of steps left with the state of Missouri.
For the merger, we used a legal firm in St. Louis that has been very thorough. There’s been some things you don’t think of until you’re in the middle of it. For instance, we had separate types of nonprofit status with the state. There’s an educational nonprofit status, and a religious nonprofit status, and two institutions can’t merge if they’re not of the same status. Ours is educational, theirs was religious, so they had to file to get that changed.
Also many of their endowment documents had unclear language, and some of those documents had to be subject to state of Missouri approval before they can be resolved. Not because there’s anything illegal or inappropriate, but the state won’t allow certain transfers to take place without at least a review. We didn’t know that, so that was a delay.
But we’ve been operating as if we had already enrolled all the students, their students are coming here, they have their schedules. The St. Louis campus closed and the students were told they had to come up with alternatives, but we were the most likely one since everything was the same — same accreditation, same degree programs, same state.
Do you know how many of the college’s students and employees you took on?
They were a micro college, so they were down to about 60 students when they announced they were closing. By the spring they were down to 53. Some of them had finished in the fall.
So there ends up being 35 students, almost 40, who didn’t graduate — of those, about 20 of them that were residential are moving here, and about 15 of them are going online, through Zoom.
As far as employees, they had maybe 18 or 19 employees when they closed, not counting adjuncts. So those 18 or 19, we made offers to 14 or 15 of them. Some of them were planning on retiring anyway. Some of them didn’t even explicitly want to talk about coming here. They wanted to finish their work there. And some of their roles would have been different than they had in a residential school.
In the end, we hired about eight or nine of them.
You’re leasing a building in the St. Louis metropolitan area, the Westport — will that essentially be a satellite campus for students?
We’re leasing 6,000 square feet. We wanted some place centrally located on the Missouri side of St. Louis. Westport has, I think, four different schools already there, like Webster University and Lindenwood University.
It’s actually a pretty big building, 90,000 square feet, so we’ll have 6,000 of that for classrooms, a small library and offices.
What’s been the most challenging part about pursuing a merger during the pandemic?
What I found is that it’s much more acceptable and tolerable when a school was actually able to merge instead of outright shut down.
It was easier because St. Louis Christian College is smaller. The smaller the school, the better. It’s much less to deal with — fewer alumni, fewer employees, fewer potential students getting loan forgiveness, fewer degree programs.
And it’s so much better being in the same state. If you go to another state, you’re facing so many more layers of complexity, and not that those are insurmountable, but we would be strangers in another place, foreigners to different regions. Even if it was an ideal situation, it would have made it much harder.
What helped us with St. Louis Christian, too, was their lender was our lender. It was a friendly lender. Their campus was leased, not in debt. That made their decision easier. The lender already leased the campus to another school. That factor alone streamlined the discussions, that lender has been in the discussions, some of their endowment was on the deposit with them, so they had to be involved with that.
In a lot of mergers, a lot of colleges try to take on what I’ll call a new domain. There’s a lot of wisdom in that if you’re good at it. But there’s also an argument for trying to solidify the domain you’re already in. I don’t mean by taking competition away but creating strengths they bring to the table.
We’re in rural Missouri. We didn’t have credibility in the St. Louis region, but having that campus in Westport, people know where it is. When we say we have people living in St. Louis who work for us — that gives us credibility.
I've thought for years some of the smartest things that schools can do that were interested in merging is look at micro colleges and build relationships with them. We’re a micro college too, we’ve only got about 200 students. If nothing else, you’ve got to join forces. But even if we were a school of 1,000 or 2,000, a relationship with a micro college can go a long way toward opening up an adjacent region, bringing a little bit of new expertise, but in the same domain.
What do you think the state of small, religious institutions is right now, especially on the heels of the pandemic?
Small institutions are resilient or they wouldn't still be in existence. They find ways. They are cared about by donors deeply. They are important, especially if they're in small towns in their region.
For instance, in mid-Missouri, there are churches that would not exist if we weren’t here. They wouldn’t have ministers, they wouldn’t have members to go and come back to. Many people come here from around the country and then they settle in Missouri because they like it.
These places, and their people, they know their importance and they’ll do what they need to do to persist.
At the end of the day, though, there’s only so much resiliency gets you when there’s a perfect storm. The problem right now is the value of college is unclear overall for young adults and their families. Everywhere you look there’s someone saying, “Oh, you don’t need college. College is a waste of money.”
People say, “I might as well take $10,000 and start a business.” Well, for every Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a hundred people it doesn’t work for. In general, people who get college degrees make more money, are happier, have more success in their life in various realms, but that’s not the story that’s easier to tell.
What remains to be seen is if we're gonna change that narrative, because it’s hurting small colleges. When you’re talking about changing income inequality, the most likely way for a low-income person to move up the ladder is to go to a small college that gives them tremendous scholarship. Then they succeed in that small environment.
I’m not really concerned about religion being on the decline. For every fringe religious person that’s becoming less religious, there’s a deeply religious person becoming more religious. That’s the bread and butter of religious institutions anyway.
How do you sell your story about return on investment?
Most people care about the short term versus the long term when it comes to ROI. If I tell you to put your money in the stock market for 40 years, you’ll say “I don’t care about 40 years from now, I care about three years from now when I’m trying to buy a house or car." The challenge is, what’s the short-term ROI?
Wherever you go to school, you’re getting cultural experiences, group dynamics, lifelong relationships. The science says that our brain from 18 to 25 is crystallizing and formalizing its development. The best thing you can do is set the table by exposing your brain to those things, but all of those, sadly, are qualitative, not quantitative, and what we’ve done is defined college as a quantitative problem.