Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, announced Friday the school will suspend all activity at the end of this semester after a May graduation ceremony.
A Roman Catholic college founded in 1891, Saint Joseph’s served 904 enrolled students this year and employed about 200 people in the Rensselear community. The college is located midway between Indianapolis and Chicago. Like other small, private colleges, Saint Joseph’s is dependent on tuition revenue.
A statement released by the college cited financial trouble as the reason for suspension.
“After significant introspection and countless hours of discussion among key administrators, the College has come to the solemn realization that its prior plans to grow out of the current financial challenges cannot be realized,” the statement read. “The financial challenges are too steep in light of the current and potential resources available.”
The statement added the college’s Board of Trustees had looked into alternative options that would have allowed the college to remain functional but ultimately decided against them.
“Restructuring options would have required a significant capital infusion and closure would have meant no future for Saint Joseph’s College,” the statement read. “The suspension of the Rennselear campus operations allow us to prepare to launch a new, reengineered future for the College.”
Saint Joseph’s College has not made clear any plans to relaunch or reopen the college at any time.
Elysse Hillyer, a 2012 graduate of the college, said the news came suddenly.
“We had heard rumors that there were financial problems, but we didn’t know they were this bad,” Hillyer said.
Hillyer said a series of letters from the college’s president, Robert Pastoor, had indicated the school’s financial difficulties.
In November 2016, Hillyer said Pastoor sent a letter informing students and alumni that the Higher Learning Commission, a nonprofit that determines accreditation status for approximately 1,000 colleges in 19 states, had put the college on probation after determining Saint Joseph’s plans for financial sustainability did not meet the commission’s standards.
“The letter he sent in November made it sound like it was temporary,” Hillyer said.
On Jan. 25, nine days before the college made its announcement, Pastoor sent out another letter, this time calling the college’s financial situation “dire.”
“The truth I have come to understand is that in order for Saint Joseph’s College to remain true to our mission to serve students and to be successful in today’s higher education market, we would need to benefit from a cash influx of approximately $100 million with commitments totaling $20 million coming before June 1st, 2017,” Pastoor wrote.
Many alumni and students took to social media to express shock, sadness and indignation with the college’s recent development. Hillyer started a Facebook page titled “Involved for Life.”
“My first thought was, ‘what can I do to help’?” Hillyer said. “I have a master’s in social media, I thought I could create a page and maintain it since the college isn’t very good at keeping in touch.”
Hillyer said she hopes the page will help current students find other options, current Saint Joseph’s employees find new jobs and possibly find the truth about what happened with the college’s finances.
Ryan Musch said he would also like to know more about what happened to the college’s money.
Musch owns Embers Venue, a downtown Rensselaer spot for private and public events. He said he’s worried about the effect the college’s shutdown will have on local business.
“To be honest, there are a lot of people downtown who don’t realize the impact,” Musch said. “Two hundred-plus professionals and faculty and staff — there’s a lot of faculty that don’t have opportunities in this area. We’re going to lose a large component of them.”
Embers held some events Musch said would draw 300 to 400 students from the college’s campus. He planned an expansion of his business before he knew about the college’s suspension.
“We’re expanding, so financially there will definitely be a blow to us,” Musch said. “Twelve percent of our new business was supposed to be from students.”
Musch, like others in the community, said he had heard whispers of how bad the college’s finances were, but never expected the college to shut down operations so quickly.
“It was sudden for everybody,” Musch said. “If someone is in trouble that is important to the community, the local and city government need to know. No one can be an island.”
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels sent a letter to the college saying students from Saint Joseph’s would be welcomed at Purdue if they decided to transfer and the $60 application fee would be waived for them.
However, for families like Julie Callison’s family, one positive act of outreach from Purdue may not be enough.
“My daughter is on an academic and soccer scholarship,” Callison said. “We have no idea if those are going to be honored anywhere else.”
Callison said she worried about her daughter’s ability to continue playing soccer. She said her NCAA contract prevents her from looking at other schools until she’s been released from Saint Joseph’s team, which hasn’t officially happened yet.
“For her, it’s devastating,” Callison said. “It felt like home and there was a special connection there. We can’t believe this is happening.”