3. BRINKSMANSHIP

Antioch University’s immediate post-closure press release offered only passive detail and light explanations for the closure: “low enrollment,” “small endowment,” and a series of failed budget balancing measures that “eroded the confidence students and parents have in the College….”. 1 While the press release confused cause and effect and avoided responsibility, its vague language rendered it technically accurate. Those things were involved in the closing of the college, sure. But the fact that the problems had been so bad, without yet prompting a mass call to alumni to prevent this most drastic of measures, rankled many alumni. Something had obviously gone wrong at an organizational level. Yet how had things reached this crisis point?

Enrollment was the critical measurement of Antioch College’s success, both in a direct financial sense and in terms how strong the school was viewed as by alumni and outsiders. A comparatively small endowment for the size of the student body, totaling only $20 million–$30 million, meant that the college’s budget was highly tuition-dependent, and tuition numbers showed an apparently steady decline between the “Golden Age” of the 1960s and early ‘70s, and the school’s announcement of closure in 2007. There were 2,000-plus students at its peak, and a mere 200 when the college re-opened for its final year.

If just the two before-and-after enrollment numbers alone are plotted on a graph, the situation looks like a straight downward trend, creating a comfortable, too-easy narrative of the college’s inexorable demise. As ever, the truth is far more complicated.

In 1973, a student strike triggered by President Nixon’s changes to financial aid and combined with complicated on-campus tensions ended the good times in dramatic fashion. Enrollment plummeted between ‘73 and ’79, when a financial and social crisis in 1979 led to many college workers taking “Payless Paydays” and working for promises and unemployment money. By the mid 1980s, while Antioch was by no means in the clear,  the number of students had generally stabilized around 500–600. There would be a few deviations over the next 30 years, but this was still roughly the case in the early 2000s.2

Six hundred students doesn’t sound like a huge amount for most colleges, and it’s not much compared to the four-digit numbers of the 1960s. But looking at Antioch’s full, 150-plus-year history, this was significantly more than the pre-Morgan era, and not much different from the 1920s–1940s era. With enough student tuition revenue, Antioch had the chance to be self-sustaining; with too little, it relied increasingly on donations. An average enrollment of 500–700 students put it on the unstable border.

Click for full size. Courtesy of Eric Miller

The history of the college was not one of fiscal certainty. As a student arriving in 2001, I quickly became acclimated to the idea that some dorms were livable while others were near-condemned, and saw fellow students attending very serious meetings about finances. In the late 1990s, Bob Devine, the college president at the time, instigated a “Strategic Plan” to strengthen the college. Although focused on the things like improving support for a diverse student body and upgrading the physical plant, an attached marketing slogan, of “800 by 2000!” gave an enrollment goal for the college. Although unsuccessful at achieving that particular goal–though it met many others–enrollment did stabilize, then rose in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fall 2001 semester had an entering class of nearly 200 students, which, combined with the few dozen spring/summer entrants and the often-longer-than-four-years student degree plans, projected to stable enrollment in the future if it could have been maintained.

2001 is a critical juncture in Antioch College history: It was the last year in which more students entered than had the previous year, and it was the high point of enrollment in the 2000s. The campus was in better shape than it had been in decades, with every major building at least open for use, which wasn’t the case a decade before.3

The National Survey of Student Engagement study conducted that year also showed Antioch as one of the most engaging schools in the country.4 Antioch College in 2001 gave many indications of being a school on the right track, as long as it could maintain its momentum.

It couldn’t. Major administrative turnover in 2001 destabilized both Antioch College and Antioch University. A slight decline in overall enrollment over the next few years at the college combined with the national recession and Antioch-specific issues to make it clear that that the college’s financial situation was in decline. This turned into a massive decline in 2005–06, when a dramatic, board-mandated change in the college’s curriculum went awry. It was called the “Renewal Plan,” and it was supposed to save Antioch College.

Next >> Part 4, Renewal

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