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Fontbonne University students contemplate the future as their school plans to close

A school logo on Monday, March 11, 2024, at Fontbonne University in Clayton. The university announced that they will cease operation by 2025 due to declining enrollment and budgetary issues.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Fontbonne University announced that it will cease operation by 2025 due to declining enrollment and budgetary issues.

On the first Monday back from spring break, students and faculty at Fontbonne University learned the private university would close in 2025. Founded in 1923, the 16-acre campus had around 900 undergraduates and graduate students combined in 2023, an enrollment drop of 70% over the past 15 years. College enrollment nationwide has declined more than 7% in the past decade.

Fontbonne students are making new plans. After several enrollment-boosting efforts proved inadequate, they’ll have to find a new school. Budget cuts in November eliminated 21 degree programs. A full roster of Sprint football players enrolled when the team began in 2022. Less than a year later, half of the team quit.

LeBron Matthews is still on the team. He was prepared to play on the first Monday back from spring break. Instead, he got a text inviting all students to the gym for a meeting. There, Blattner told a small crowd that the school would close. The board of trustees voted on the school’s fate just a day before.

Students didn’t have practice that day. They wouldn’t have class either. An online announcement told students and faculty to use the time for a mental health break. Matthews told his friends that it would be hard to stay in touch after they all left Fontbonne. He had the same problem last semester when many of his teammates quit the team.

“It's weird. You get a FaceTime here or there. Other than that you don't really talk to them. Everything right now just feels a lot different,” Matthews said. “This was kind of my last resort.”

Matthews plans to transfer to another school. He has an internship in St. Louis that’s keeping him nearby. He won’t play collegiate Sprint football since there aren’t any other Missouri schools with a team.

As Sprint football gave Fontbonne a temporary enrollment boost, a nearby school made a similar change. Lindenwood upgraded its sports programs in 2022. The transition to NCAA Division I athletics aimed to “drive enrollment, enhance university visibility, and generate revenue,” said John Porter, president of Lindenwood University.

Lindenwood cut 10 sports programs less than two years later. Audrey Woods was a freshman on the field hockey team when the sport was cut. She said the field hockey program was a big part of her choosing Lindenwood.

“We feel like we just weren't even given a chance before they cut us,” Woods said. “I just loved the team and everybody.”

Many Fontbonne students express a similar sentiment. Ogechi Okpara was on campus with former teammates when the news broke. She graduated from Fontbonne in 2023 and ran track for four years. Okpara said she’d miss the community she found there.

“The freshmen, and everyone that has all these friends and people that they met, they're basically advised not to stay here. It'll be gone by the time they get a chance to graduate,” Okpara said. “I was on the team here. All my accomplishments and everything, it's just going to be gone.”

Fontbonne University officials plan to create an archive of student achievements and memorabilia of its 101-year history. They’ll provide teach-out plans and scholarships for current students who stay for Fontbonne’s final semesters. After graduation in May, more than 300 students will still need to transfer to complete their degree.

“I would hope maybe half of them or more could graduate if they choose to stay here,” Blattner said. “But some of our students come from other states, some of them want to play sports, and some of those decisions are just up in the air yet.”

Blattner will retire as the last president of Fontbonne University. Washington University hasn’t released plans for the buildings on campus. When the purchase is finalized this year, it will lease the property back to Fontbonne until summer 2025.

Lauren Brennecke is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio and a recent graduate of Webster University.