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The fate of private junior colleges

Fascinating story of Lon Morris College and its grand plan to save itself.

Like so many other non-profit, two-year private campuses, Lon Morris has been seeking ways to survive as more than half the country’s private junior colleges have disappeared since the mid-1990s due in part to cheaper tuition at community colleges. Dozens have closed. Most transitioned to four-year schools. But in a fitting strategy for a Texas school, Lon Morris saw its survival in football.

“That was going to be my new home for the next two years,” said Brandon Griffin, 18, among the latest football recruits looking for a new school after Lon Morris axed its sports teams and furloughed almost all faculty members. “For a moment, I didn’t even know if I wanted to play football anymore. I worked all the way through high school just for this scholarship and it was taken from me unfairly.”

The school’s decision to revive the football program in 2009 was meant to help erase some of its debt but instead drove Lon Morris further in the hole, about $20 million when it filed for bankruptcy in July. It also prompted the resignation of the president who spearheaded the idea and left plenty of disheartened students and former faculty wondering what to do next.

The strategy was to recruit more than 300 football players for the first season on partial scholarships of $7,500 each, leaving them to pay more than $15,000 in remaining expenses and replenish the school’s coffers. The recruiting helped more than triple the school’s enrollment to about 1,000 students by 2010.

It was quite an enrollment boost for a tiny campus located more than a two-hour drive from Dallas in this quiet town of 14,500 people.

[…]

Lon Morris then endured a string of unexpected pitfalls that added to the million-dollar football expansion tab. The campus didn’t offer enough room to house the rush of new students, so administrators leased a nearby hotel. It also offered huge tuition discounts to players — as high as 53 percent in 2010 — and failed to collect payments from those who could not pay yet continued to take classes. Other costs, including hiring security to combat reports of misbehaving players, only worsened the financial hole.

It seems like an awfully strange thing to have tried given that football is generally a money-losing proposition for colleges. I don’t have anything to add to this, I had just never really given any thought to the world of private two-year colleges. This was an interesting look inside that world, so check it out.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael says:

    My father used to be on the Board of Trustees at LMC and I have an AA from Lon Morris, which is where I landed after I bombed out of my first college. It was a good place to learn how to get my shite together: go to class, do homework, turn in papers on time– all the things I skipped at Rice. It also, because it was a Methodist school, made it easier to transfer to SMU or (in my case) Southwestern.

    They’ve handled things very poorly financially for years. I know of at least one endowed lecture program where they used the endowment as collateral on a loan and it was called in. Totally in violation of the terms of the gift, but the money’s gone now.

    It’s very sad, but the dumb idea of “football will save us” was part of a string of bad decisions.

  2. Josh Ellis says:

    As a Lon Morris alumnus, I’ve followed this story very closely and shared my own thoughts on my blog. I graduated from Lon Morris in 1999, and even then we heard rumors of the financial ruin on the horizon. At the time, much of the blame, at least from faculty and staff, landed at the feet of the President of the College, and an apathetic Board that refused to reprimand him, even when it was discovered that he had altered his son’s grades (no one debates that he had his son’s grade changed, just a matter of why and under what circumstances).

    Even so, that particular President recognized that the school had limited resources and should stick to the education philosophy that had worked for almost 140 years–encourage scholarly pursuit by providing the foundations of a liberal arts education. The school was never intended to offer terminal degrees. Yet when the old President died, and the new President took over, he had grand designs of changing all of that. The only problem is he couldn’t decided on what kind of school he wanted to turn LMC into.

    He added several “professional” programs–like hospitality and agriculture– that would have been unheard of at any other point in the colleges history. As you noted, he expanded the college’s athletic department, adding not only football, but soccer and track as well. A few years ago, he even came out and said he wanted to expanding Lon Morris to a 4-year institution.

    During this time period, enrollment skyrocketed, but many of the new students weren’t so much interested in the academic course offerings at the college as they were the chance to play a sport or receive a Pell Grant. In 2010, over 60% of Lon Morris students received Pell Grants. Clearly, this is not a sustainable way of running a college.