Multiple news reports on Feb. 21 confirmed the sad details: Atlantic Union College, founded in 1882 as the South Lancaster Academy, will cease its bachelor’s degree programs this spring and its certificate programs by the end of the year.
In effect the school, popularly known as AUC, would close, four years short of its centennial as a college. Hobbled by a loss of regional accreditation in 2011 and shuttered for four years, the school never recovered its peak enrollment levels nor the financial support of conferences in the Atlantic Union.
“There are two [Seventh-day Adventist] conferences that want to pull out completely and a third that wants to cut its funding by half,” AUC spokesman Emmanuelle Ortiz told the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Sentinel & Enterprise newspaper. “We did a feasibility study and there’s no way for the school to continue on financially,” the paper quoted Ortiz as saying.
According to the Worcester Business Journal, leaders of the school and the Atlantic Union are working to help those students left in the lurch.
“The board of trustees, in cooperation with the Atlantic Union Conference administration, will form a plan to guide the students, faculty, and staff through this transition period,” the article reported. “This plan will provide academic options and information to the students, faculty, staff, and larger Atlantic Union College family.”
The details remain to be seen, of course, and observers and friends can only pray for the best for any student affected by the closure. AUC has transfer arrangements with both Andrews University and Southwestern Adventist University, and this offers some prospect the students can continue with their studies and earn accredited degrees.
A larger question raised by the closure concerns the future of Seventh-day Adventist higher education, particularly in North America and Western Europe. Some concerns are not unique to Adventist-owned schools: On the very morning of the AUC announcement, The Wall Street Journal ran an item on the crisis in U.S. colleges and universities: “U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers.” (The link is to an article for which a paid subscription may be required.)
At the core of the article is the notion that today’s most successful colleges and universities are the ones preparing people for the careers taking shape in the present age. Change, it appears, came slowly to many schools, and the slower its arrival, the less good it was for the school.
Speaking with a Journal reporter, an official of West Virginia’s Concord University, which is on the failing end of the paper’s rankings, offered a stark description of the reality facing many schools.
“In the same way the bookstores fell when Amazon took over, now its higher education’s turn and it’s been coming for a while,” said Charles Becker, Concord’s vice president for business and finance. “The shake-out is coming. It’s already here.”
While a good chunk of the disruption can be laid to demographics—there are fewer college-age students available to schools than a decade or two ago—I have to wonder if there are other factors as well.
Along with curriculum choices, rising costs, fueled by high overheads and massive construction projects, make college far less affordable for many. While Adventist schools generally keep those costs down, the fact remains that college is a far more expensive undertaking than it’s ever been.
There are ways to buck the trend: Online instruction, recorded classes, and virtual office hours can all be combined to provide the basics of college—and perhaps much more—at very low cost. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, through its BYU-Idaho campus, offers its members the chance to earn an accredited four-year degree for approximately $8,100. The degrees are accredited, the education is of a high quality and, because the classes are supported by activities in local LDS Church buildings, they increase bonds between members and the church.
(I should note that the North American Division has already accomplished a great work in establishing the online Adventist Learning Community, which offers a wide range of courses for member and pastoral development. The courses are offered at no charge, although some may require the purchase of books. Continuing Education Units are granted, but at present, there’s no track for earning degrees.)
I sincerely believe the Pathway model established by the LDS Church has similar potential for Adventists in North America and beyond. With the sad news of Atlantic Union College’s closure, it may be time—if not even past time—for a closer examination of how such educational alternatives can serve Adventist Church members, and the colleges and universities we cherish.