The Concordia University system must brace for yet another closure. Concordia College New York, a small, Lutheran liberal arts college in Bronxville, N.Y., will close this summer, it announced Thursday.
Iona College, a private Roman Catholic institution in nearby New Rochelle, N.Y., will purchase the Concordia campus. The two colleges are also developing a teach-out plan for Concordia students to complete their degrees at Iona.
The decision to close Concordia was pre-emptive, said John Nunes, its president.
“The two paths that financially challenged institutions go down is either the precipitous close — ‘oops, we ran out of money, and now we have to close’ — or, the long, lingering, threadbare existence,” Nunes said. “In January, our board decided that they didn’t want to go down either of those two paths.”
Concordia’s closure announcement leaves only six institutions in the Concordia University system. It began to shrink eight years ago, when Concordia University Ann Arbor was annexed by Concordia University Wisconsin in 2013. Five years later, Concordia College in Alabama, a historically Black college, closed due to falling enrollments and mounting debt. Concordia University in Portland, Ore., announced in February that it would close, citing a challenging and changing higher education landscape.
Concordia College New York, like the three institutions that closed before it, has faced increased financial pressure as tuition discount rates and operating expenses continue to rise. It has limped along for decades; in 1987, its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said the institution’s finances were “precarious,” Nunes said. The college’s original buildings — designed by Edward Lippincott Tilton, who helped design Ellis Island — are old and in need of maintenance.
Enrollment has fluctuated quite a bit at Concordia over the past several years. The college welcomed 780 undergraduate students in fall 2020, but only 580 are enrolled this spring. The COVID-19 pandemic cut Concordia’s enrollment nearly in half. The college enrolled 1,269 undergraduate students in fall 2019, and 1,302 students in spring 2020.
Many Concordia students are first generation and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Nunes said. When the pandemic hit, quite a few students dropped out to help their families.
“Service workers, restaurant workers, hotel workers — that sector was really hit in the pandemic, and those are the families of our students,” Nunes said. “Many of those students had to go back to work, and many of them had to find ways to support their families or join in their families’ survival efforts.”
Concordia’s student body is 42 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic or Latino, 11 percent Black or African American and 5 percent Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Most students — 63 percent — come from within New York State. The college is very diverse compared with other Lutheran colleges, Nunes said.
“One of the heartbreaking things for me is that we are the most diverse Lutheran school,” he said. “I think it’s a huge loss to the church in many ways because of that, because Lutherans are not very diverse at all.”
The college had already taken on significant debt in an attempt to stay alive, Nunes said. But without a viable path forward, the board opted to wind down operations before it was forced into a precipitous closure.
“They decided that surviving is not enough,” Nunes said.
Iona will purchase Concordia’s 33-acre campus, which sits only three miles away. The two colleges are still working out a binding agreement, and neither would disclose how much money the campus will likely sell for. Iona may use the campus to build a home for its health sciences programs, but plans for the campus are still in the works, said Seamus Carey, president of Iona. It will also likely upgrade some of the Concordia buildings.
Concordia hasn’t decided if it will offer severance packages or other assistance for employees. Iona has no formal plans to take on Concordia employees, but Carey said they could be considered for openings at the college.
“We will examine positions depending on the need — depending how many students come over, and in what particular areas,” Carey said. “Certainly, if we had a need and an opening, we would look favorably upon Concordia employees.”
The teach-out plan for current Concordia students is also still being worked out, Carey said.
“We’re working on a crosswalk for their students to see what programs they can slide into immediately,” Carey said. “Then we have to look at each student individually and see where they are in their individual education.”
The arrangements between Iona and Concordia must be approved by the New York State Department of Education and Middle States, the accreditor. Both colleges hope to have something finalized this summer.
Drew Bogner, interim president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York, of which Concordia and Iona are a part, provided a statement on the closure.
“We are saddened that Concordia College New York is closing its doors, a decision exacerbated by the financial hardships of the pandemic, and we are equally grateful that Iona College is stepping up to support Concordia students as they complete their degrees,” Bogner said. “Colleges, and college students, are struggling and need support from the federal and state governments. Without sufficient support, other institutions may be forced to evaluate their future, potentially displacing students and eliminating jobs. The Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities will continue advocating to preserve New York’s diverse higher education ecosystem and support students and families.”
Concordia University Nebraska, also part of the Concordia University system, expressed its remorse about the college’s closure on Twitter.
“Please join us in praying for all those affected by the closing of Concordia College New York,” it wrote. “The church and world have been blessed by their 140 years of faithful ministry, and we pray that God comforts them as they move forward with their next chapter.”
While he’s hopeful Concordia can close in a way that does the least damage to employees and students, Nunes said he’s heartbroken it has to happen at all.
“The heartbreak is, there’s nothing wrong with the mission of the institution. It’s about getting a business model that works, which is becoming increasingly difficult in this environment,” Nunes said. “It’s not for lack of trying.”