Alderson Broaddus University, a cash-strapped Baptist-affiliated institution in West Virginia, got a lifeline this week when the state’s governor asked regulators to delay a meeting where they would consider revoking the college’s operating authority.
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission planned to convene Friday after learning Alderson Broaddus had an unpaid utility bill to the city of Philippi of nearly $776,000, which further threw into question the institution’s fragile finances.
The commission said it would meet about Alderson Broaddus to “address an imminent material financial loss or other imminent substantial harm to the public entity, its employees, or the members of the public that it serves.”
Higher education experts say the university is at high risk of closure.
But regulators canceled that emergency meeting after the plea from Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who said in a public statement Thursday that “no one wants to see this university close if there’s a way to avoid it.”
Justice said he would meet with the commission, the university’s leaders and state legislators “to make sure we exhaust every single avenue we can before drastic action is taken. It’s simply too important, not only for this prestigious university and its alumni, but also for the entire community of Philippi and Barbour County.”
University officials got a reprieve with the utility bill, too, announcing Thursday it had struck a deal with Philippi to give it $67,000, and then settle the remaining balance through regular payments.
The city had threatened to cut off the university’s water, sewer, garbage and electric services on or after July 31 if the bill had not been resolved.
“The agreement includes a comprehensive plan to address the current balance proactively, ensuring financial stability for both parties,” the university said in an emailed statement Friday.
However, Alderson Broaddus’ troubles are far from over.
Experts say the institution appears on the precipice of collapse. Its enrollment has dwindled steadily, dropping from about 1,150 students in fall 2015 to fewer than 800 in fall 2022, according to federal data.
Alderson Broaddus’ financial circumstances worsened with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, and when tax credits it expected to receive were reduced and delayed, according to its former governing board chair, Rebecca Hooman.
Hooman outlined these problems in a public letter on the university’s website that was later removed. The letter exists in internet archives. Hooman stepped down late last month saying she had “become a distraction to the good work” the administration was doing.
Because of the financial crisis, state regulators only allowed Alderson Broaddus to operate provisionally through June 2024, and warned that they could withdraw their approval at any time.
As part of the provisional agreement, Alderson Broaddus must develop teach-out plans by Oct. 1 that would enable students to smoothly transfer to another institution, and it must secure academic and financial aid records through a third party.
The university must also submit monthly reports to the state detailing its financial situation.
Alderson Broaddus maintains its accreditation. But university officials are slated to meet with its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, or HLC, next week as a part of renewing its status.
State policymakers may be punting the decision to close Alderson Broaddus to the accreditor, Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, told Higher Ed Dive this month.
That’s because shutting down an institution is an enormously unpopular decision, and state officials may want to pass the blame, Kelchen said.
HLC put the university’s accreditation on probation in 2017, in part because it had defaulted on bond repayments totaling more than $36 million two years prior, a rare event among nonprofit colleges.
The accreditor lifted the probation in 2019, but gave notice to Alderson Broaddus that the continued financial instability could put it out of compliance with its standards.
Two years later, HLC walked back that sanction as well.