Judson College: The Latest Casualty in the Disruption of Higher Education
The Business Advisor
Judson College, a small, women’s college in Alabama, has become the latest casualty in the challenges pummeling higher education. On May 6, 2021, Judson’s Board of Trustees voted to close the 183-year-old college on July 13, 2021, at the end of the summer 2021 term.1 Thereafter, it is anticipated that the college will seek an orderly liquidation through a chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.2
Judson is the second U.S. women’s college to announce its closure this year. On March 17, 2021, Elizabeth Hillman, president of 169-year old Mills College in Oakland, California, along with the school’s Board of Trustees, announced that the institution would not admit a first-year class in the fall and would cease functioning as a degree-granting institution in 2023.3 The mission of Mills College, which enrolls women and non-binary students, will continue to be fulfilled by Mills Institute, which is expected to offer “transformative learning and research opportunities to artists, to scholars, to students,” and “to advance women’s leadership opportunities and to advance racial and gender equity.”4 Judson, which is affiliated with the Alabama Baptist Convention, is also the second faith-based college to announce closure this year. On January 28, 2021, the Board of Trustees announced that Concordia College in New York, which is affiliated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, will close at the end of the summer, and the campus will be purchased by nearby Iona College.5
Judson’s closure was triggered by the same factors triggering other college closures. The first trigger was financial. In December 2020, Judson’s president pleaded with donors for $500,000 to keep the college open for the spring 2021 semester. Although that plea was successful, a second fundraising push to raise $5 million to keep the college functioning beyond the spring 2021 semester fell far short of its goal. Exacerbating Judson’s financial problems was the lack of a robust endowment throwing off income. As of June 30, 2019, Judson’s endowment was valued at approximately $15.5 million.6
The financial turmoil at Judson was likely worsened by another trigger that closes many institutions—a substantial enrollment decline. Judson’s enrollment was never large, leaving the tuition-dependent college particularly vulnerable to financial distress in the face of any decline in enrollment. Low first-year retention and six-year graduation rates in recent years (60 percent and 36 percent, respectively, in 2019)7 could only have hindered efforts at increasing or even stabilizing enrollment. By the spring 2021 semester, Judson’s enrollment had fallen to 145 from 250 for the 2019 fall semester.8 Moreover, with 41 seniors graduating in 2021 and other students leaving, only about 80 students have elected to return to Judson for the fall semester of 2021.0 The icing on the cake was having only twelve prospective first-year students commit to attending Judson in the fall.10
Judson’s status as a single-gender institution may well have suppressed the number of applicants. In that regard, there are currently only four men’s colleges11 and fewer than three dozen women’s colleges.12 in the U.S. Since 2000, at least 19 historically women’s colleges have become fully coeducational. By remaining a single-sex college, therefore, Judson was clearly swimming against the tide.
Judson may also have been the victim of students’ changing views on conservative faith-based colleges.13 Particularly in the post-war period, many U.S. colleges and universities either have severed ties with their founding religious denominations or had those ties severed by the denominations. Most recently, a number of institutions severed their ties with the United Methodist Church over the results of a contentious vote at an annual meeting of that denomination. Nevertheless, many now non-denominational institutions have retained strong ties with their founding religious tradition, if not the founding denominations.14 Moreover, many faith-based institutions—notably University of Notre Dame (Roman Catholic), Baylor University (Baptist), and Brigham Young University (Mormon)—have not had difficulties attracting students while maintaining ties to their founding denominations. Under the circumstances, therefore, it is unclear whether Judson’s continued affiliation with the Alabama Baptist Convention negatively impacted enrollment.
Like the College of New Rochelle, Dowling College, and St. Gregory’s University before it, Judson College will have a sad ending to its story. Judson will wind down its affairs in a liquidating chapter 11 case. Reorganization under chapter 11 is not an option under current law for Judson or any other U.S. institution of higher learning. Colleges and universities filing for relief under the Bankruptcy Code lose their eligibility to participate in federal student financial aid programs,15 which is the lifeblood of many colleges and universities, particularly tuition-dependent institutions like Judson. At this point, it does not appear that Judson would benefit from the ability to reorganize under chapter 11 even if the option were available. Judson’s problems go well beyond needing to restructure its debt and deleverage its balance sheet. Nevertheless, reorganization under chapter 11 (financial, operational, and structural) would make sense for a number of colleges and universities currently in financial distress.
1Judson College board of trustees vote to close 183-year-old institution | Judson College
2Judson College closing amid enrollment and debt woes (insidehighered.com)J
3Mills College, a Pioneer in the Arts, Closes After 169 Years (hyperallergic.com)
5Concordia College New York to Close | About (concordia-ny.edu)
6Judson College | Data USA
7College Navigator – Judson College (ed.gov)
8Judson College board of trustees vote to close 183-year-old institution | Judson College; College Navigator – Judson College (ed.gov)
11Of those four, Morehouse College participates in the Atlanta University Center consortium, and the operations of St. John’s University (MN) (which is coeducational at the graduate level) are coordinated with those of nearby College of St. Benedict, a women’s college.
12All but two of these either participate in consortia with institutions admitting men, have coordinated operations with institutions that admit men, or admit men to certain programs (usually part-time or graduate programs).
13Judson College closing amid enrollment and debt woes (insidehighered.com)
14In fact, Belmont University’s (TN) continued embrace of its Baptist heritage proved to be a sticking point in its acquisition of the secular Watkins College of Art. Whitford, Emma, “Tensions rise in battle over Watkins-Belmont merger” (insidehighered.com)(March 20, 2020). Similarly, Southern Methodist University’s break with the United Methodist Church has not meant a break with its Methodist Heritage. Mission Statement – SMU
15See 20 U.S.C. § 1002(a)(4)(A).