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Fontbonne University closure indicative of threats facing colleges nationwide

A student walks down a staircase in the East Building 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
A student walks down a staircase in the East Building on Monday at Fontbonne University in Clayton. The university announced that it will cease operation by 2025 due to declining enrollment and budgetary issues.

Founded in 1923, Fontbonne University in Clayton announced earlier this week that it would shut down in 2025. The private Catholic institution has fewer than 1,000 students.

“We have had a declining enrollment for the past 15 years, and it's been very difficult to meet our budget as expenses have increased and as revenues have not kept up with those expenses,” said Fontbonne President Nancy Blattner. She added that the expected demographic cliff will mean even fewer college-age students will graduate from Missouri high schools in the coming years.

For many people, especially those familiar with the challenges colleges and universities face today, the announcement was not especially shocking. Nearly 12,000 college campuses closed in the U.S. from July 2004 to June 2020. The coronavirus pandemic strained colleges further — and led more people to consider virtual options for higher education, which can be more affordable than local, in-person learning.

“Enrollment hasn't rebounded fully since the loss during the pandemic, and there has been a pretty steady decrease over about the past decade or two,” said Rachel Burns, senior policy analyst at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “And so institutions, especially smaller regional, private nonprofit institutions, are truly struggling.”

The 2022 report “A Dream Derailed,” which Burns was a lead author on, investigated the effects of college closures on students. It found that less than half of these students enrolled at another institution after their school’s closure. Of those students who did reenroll, just over a third eventually earned their degrees. Burns said closures carry long-term negative effects for students.

“If a student is incurring debt and then not able to pay off any of that debt with a high-paying job after graduation, they're in a worse-off position than had they not entered postsecondary education at all,” she said.

Burns anticipates more consolidation, downsizing and potentially campus closures in the near future. To protect student outcomes in these situations, she said, institutions should take measures to downsize and close as responsibly as possible, through adequate notice and a plan that ensures students can either complete their degrees or transfer their credits to other institutions.

Blattner said administrators are negotiating with other schools that could potentially accept Fontbonne student credits, waive residency requirements and match student out-of-pocket costs. There are roughly 300 students who will not finish their degrees before the school closes at the end of summer 2025.

"We have a couple of those already in place that are being signed,” Blattner said. “In the coming days, there will be additional teach-out agreements announced, and I would encourage students to continue to look at our website. Each student will have an individualized plan that will be developed for him or her with their advisers."

In addition to Blattner and Burns, Webster University education professor Basiyr Rodney joined the program to talk about what the loss of a 100-year-old institution means for the St. Louis region — and the state of colleges and universities throughout the country. Listen on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

Fontbonne closure mirrors threats facing colleges nationwide

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.