Nyack is selling its aging 107-acre campus in affluent Nyack, N.Y., about 30 miles north of the city, and consolidating the entire school (including its affiliate Alliance Theological Seminary or ATS) into six stories in a skyscraper in lower Manhattan, right around the corner from The King’s College.
The college characterizes the Manhattan move as a return to its roots because it began in New York City in 1882, focused on training missionaries. It moved to the Nyack campus in Rockland County in 1897. A century later the school began offering some classes in Manhattan, and then recently decided that the aging Rockland campus was “no longer financially viable.”
Though already straining under debt, the school in 2016 took out a $55 million mortgage from a French investment bank, Natixis, to buy its Manhattan campus and consolidate the school there. Students will live in housing in nearby Jersey City. With extra space in its Manhattan property for now, Nyack has been offering its available space at affordable rents to other ministries like Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for offices in the city, a project called CoLab NYC.
The Nyack campus went up for sale this year, and President Mike Scales said the school has no particular requirements on who will buy the campus. The school has also recently taken out a $38.5 million loan from Procida Funding & Advisors (a non-bank lender) to help with debt and operations costs, according to a report in the Rockland/Westchester Journal News.
Nyack noted in filings with the state that the school had found the Jersey City dorm property through a philanthropist connected to the school.
Nyack administration and board members, as well as officials from the CMA, declined interviews.
Other financially struggling schools have taken a similar route of selling prime real estate and moving, although usually to less expensive areas. Fuller Theological Seminary announced in 2018 that it would be selling its historic campus in pricey downtown Pasadena, Calif., and building a new campus in Pomona, an area with lower housing costs. That would put “a Fuller education in reach of more people,” then-acting Provost Mari Clements told the Los Angeles Times.
Nyack’s retention has been difficult in the transition, as students don’t know exactly what is going on with the school’s plans. Nyack first announced that all classes and dorms would relocate for the fall 2019 semester, and then reversed course earlier this year and said it would continue operating on the Rockland campus this fall semester, with a planned start at the new consolidated Manhattan campus in the spring semester.
Kaelee Pearson, a rising junior from upstate New York, enrolled at Nyack because she wanted to go to a Christian college close to home that was affordable, and she loved Nyack’s racial diversity (it’s majority black and Hispanic). She has loved her two years at Nyack and was heavily involved in student leadership and other activities. But Pearson decided not to return for this fall semester because of the confusion and lack of communication to students over the campus changes. She said most of her friends have transferred. The school didn’t tell Nyack students about the possibility of a move into the Manhattan campus until November 2018.
“If there was more communication, they would have had a lot of people stay,” she said. “[President Scales] never apologized to us for making our lives crazy.”
She wasn’t sure if her Youth and Family Studies major could continue in the city, and said several of her professors from her major weren’t going to move to the city. (Scales said in a statement that all the same courses would still be offered.) Also, when she recently called the college, she found her financial aid counselor had changed to someone in the Manhattan campus.
“Communication-wise, you’re handling my money and I didn’t even know?” Pearson said. “I’m trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Financially, they always try to make a way for me to continue going there. … But it is very unorganized at the moment and very uncertain.”
Pearson was also surprised that chapel, which she found a central part of the college’s spiritual community, would no longer be mandatory at the Manhattan campus. Other alumni have voiced concerns about this as well. Nyack said chapel would still take place three times a week in Manhattan, but did not answer a question about making it voluntary.
Instead of returning to Nyack, Pearson decided to take a yearlong internship that began this summer. Afterward she plans to transfer, and she’s thinking of attending another Christian college in Florida, where the cost of living is more affordable.
“I’m just going to trust God and see where He leads me,” Pearson said.
Douglas Oliver has been an online student at Alliance Theological Seminary, which is part of Nyack and shares its campus in Rockland. A member of the CMA, he’s also taught mechanical engineering at secular and Christian colleges. He is upset that schools like Nyack are accepting more students to fill up enrollment—Nyack’s acceptance rate is 98 percent—and Oliver wonders if all those students are college-ready. If not, they may drop out or transfer after incurring debt.
Oliver said Christian institutions in particular have a responsibility not to put students in that position. Right now he’s counseling a couple in his church who are deep in debt after the wife attended a Christian college and never graduated. He also sees the debt-based approach as leading schools to make unnecessary investments in amenities and athletics and thinks colleges should be more “bare bones” to bring debt levels down.
At the same time, colleges desperate for students are giving bigger and bigger discounts on tuition, sometimes as high as 60 or 70 percent. Union’s Carter says that creates its own death spiral because a college rarely can reverse that pattern to lower both tuition and the discount rate.
But big bailouts have helped Christian colleges find new life. When Oral Roberts University was suffocating under $52 million in debt, the Green family of Hobby Lobby wealth stepped in with a $70 million gift, and then stepped in with at least another $40 million in following years. The Greens pledged the funding on the condition of financial reform and leadership changes, and enrollment has been growing.
“Organizations become tradition-bound, and it’s particularly bad in higher ed,” said Bakewell. “They don’t adapt quickly.”