'No real objectives': Alumni have concerns about the future of Eureka College
A group of alumni and former employees is making its concerns about the long-term health of Eureka College public.
A Facebook page titled “Eureka College Alumni Update” created Dec. 29 has more than 1,300 members. Posts range from detailed breakdowns on data like unpaid student fees to reminiscing over cherished memories at the small private institution.
Alum Aaron Pilcher is the creator of the page. He said it was around the time former Eureka football coach Kurt Barth announced his resignation in mid-December.
“I saw a few other comments about the school's condition, generally. I had a few private calls or messages,” Pilcher said. “And I just thought it was a good idea to figure out who was saying what and see if we couldn't go get all of the same space and talk about it.”
Pilcher never expected the page to garner this much attention and membership, or to begin such a wide-ranging and in-depth conversation about the state of the school.
“I thought this would be a small group,” he said. “I thought a few of my friends would give me their opinions about when they went through campus.”
Some alumni and former employees have decided to voice their concerns beyond the Facebook group. Mary Finch is a Eureka graduate and a former director of Fine Arts Advancement and Recruitment at the college.
“It’s really hard for me to do this,” she said. “But I feel like we’re at that point. Small colleges are closing.”
Finch is referencing the recent closure of institutions like Lincoln and MacMurray Colleges. Eureka absorbed some of the displaced students from those institutions. These closures haven’t been unusual in the post-secondary education environment over the last few years. Other rural private colleges are slashing budgets and programs significantly to stay viable.
But what are the specific statistics and trends that are leading past and present Eureka College stakeholders to this level of concern? It’s difficult to say what generally drives a group as large as the Facebook page, but there are some recurring themes.
Crunching the numbers
Gary Stocker is a former chief of staff at Missouri’s Westminster College. He’s now a researcher and founder of College Viability,an app that compiles publicly available data to compare and contrast colleges across the country.
When Stocker looks at the trends through 2021 at Eureka College, gathered through the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System [IPEDS], he sees the numbers sounding alarm bells for alumni.
“Let's look at a business case. Let's get the tuition and fees revenue,” said Stocker, sorting through his data interface. “Because as you and I both know, private colleges are heavily dependent on that resource.”
From 2014 to 2021, the college’s tuition and fees revenue showed a steady decline of almost $2.5 million.
“An example I use, Collin, if you and I have a coffee shop, it’s the Gary and Collin Coffee Shop, we can handle the occasional year when we don’t make money or don’t make much money,” said Stocker. “But we can’t handle, in our business, year after year of not generating positive cash.”
Eureka officials point out that the higher education sector is changing and other colleges are having to operate on huge deficits. Eureka College Board of Trustees Chair Beau Underwood, a 2006 graduate, said institutions can’t rely on tuition alone anymore.
“The reality is that the costs of providing a high quality education are going up. I think everybody out there understands the pressures created by higher inflation,” he said. “Plus, you've got the extra expenses required to support students who have spent critical years of their lives trying to learn amid a global pandemic.”
At the same time, Underwood said, fewer students are going to college and Illinois is a net exporter of students, so competition is fierce.
The college is actively looking for ways to diversify revenue streams and lessen reliance on donor support. He credits Eureka College President Jamel Wright with restructuring the college’s advancement office to have a dedicated grant writer to double down on pursuing grants.
Wright was unavailable to conduct an interview with WCBU for this story in time for publishing.
Just four days ago, the Illinois Board of Higher Education announced $400 million in capital grants for Illinois private colleges, including $3 million for Eureka. Underwood said, taken all together, grant rewards secured by the college in the last few months total $10 million.
“We just understand that in this environment, the amount of money we're receiving per student is not going to be...we're not gonna be able to increase that in the way we have, in the ways colleges had, in the past,” he said.
Tuition and fees revenue is, of course, not the only statistic Stocker takes note of. He mentions enrollment, down from 645 in 2014 to 466 in 2021, an almost 28% drop in seven years.
Underwood said the last two years have provided evidence for a stabilization of enrollment at Eureka. Two years ago, he said the college welcomed a record number of 279 first-year and transfer students to campus. Without the transfer students, he said it’s still the second largest first year class in Eureka’s history.
“This year, our enrollment was up to 573 people in the fall. That was about another 2%, little more than that over even last year's enrollment,” Underwood said. “So I think we're seeing some success, even in this again, really tough recruiting environment, and getting more people excited about coming to Eureka.”
Elsewhere, Stocker notes a low four-year graduation rate in 2021, at 42%. When combined with a high acceptance rate, approximately 87%, Stocker is concerned the college may be accepting students who aren’t prepared.
“Increasing retention, increasing graduation rates is something that the board is talking about the board is working on, the administration is laser focused on and the faculty and staff are working on, we're all in this together,” said Underwood.
As an example, Underwood points to a $2 million grant for Student Success Initiatives the institution received last October. He says the initiatives include investments in expanded tutoring opportunities, student coaching and career counseling.
“I'm confident that when we do this work, and we put these dollars to good use, we're going to see improvements here,” said Underwood.
Another number Stocker notes is the college’s endowment. As of 2021, it stood a bit over $31 million.
“I have a bare minimum threshold based on the research that I have, that any college to be able to sustain any kind of economic trauma or downturn needs to have about 50,” he said.
Underwood doesn’t have the exact current standing of the endowment, but said he believes the school could weather an economic downturn.
“If we're going to continue to sustain the college and provide the kind of experience we want to offer our students, we're going to need revenue from lots of different sources,” said Underwood. “And so the endowment is a piece of that, the new approach to grant funding that President Wright has led is a piece of that.”
With the data all taken together, Stocker said he would be exploring options for consolidation if he were at the helm of Eureka College. In general, he thinks major consolidation is a likely outcome of the challenging private college environment so many describe.
“I’m calling Millikin, I'm calling Illinois Wesleyan,” he said. “I'm calling the big privates in my region and saying, ‘Marry me, marry me, marry me.’”
Alumni concerns and communication
These areas pointed out by Stocker mirror many of the concerns raised by members of the Eureka Alumni Update Facebook group and those interviewed for this story. What they would like to see happen varies.
“I really think the board leadership needs to change,” said former board of trustees member Rodney Gould, who served on the board between 2008 and 2014, and again from 2019 to 2022.
“I think the board needs to make a commitment to being more upfront about the perils that Eureka is facing,” Gould said. “I think if the board would come forward and say ‘here’s the issues we’re facing,’ people might rally around them.”
One of Gould’s principal concerns, and one echoed by other alumni, is an upcoming debt obligation for the college. A 2022 financial auditobtained through ProPublica includes two term loans from Midland States Bank with a combined total value over $10 million. Both loans’ principal and interest is due on March 1, 2025.
“My big concern is that this eight or nine million has to be refinanced by 2025, and that there's gonna be no takers to refinance it,” said Gould. “ And people are gonna wake up overnight and find out that the school had to close.”
Speaking generally, Underwood said the college is prepared to meet its debt obligations, adding the school successfully refinanced and reduced its debt load by over one-third during the pandemic.
“We're not facing some of the same pressures that other colleges are in terms of the debt loads that they're carrying,” Underwood said. “So I'm confident that we'll be able to manage that debt effectively in the future, just as we have in the past.”
Some alumni, like Finch, mention finding the college’s current strategic plan lacking.
“This is my opinion, having dealt with large nonprofit organizations for many years, both as an administrator and as and as a performer,” she said. “But the plan that is posted is about as simplistic as I've ever seen for higher education institutions. There are no real objectives to be reached.”
When asked about the plan, Underwood said it should function as “high level goals” that are “explored over time” which may, in some cases, lead to deciding against a project. Broadly, he said the plan is full of projects that could improve student attraction and enrollment. As an example he uses the objective: “I'd explore satellite locations both locally and internationally.”
“One of the ideas we talked about was maybe an outpost in Germany, it was really driven by this idea that Eureka College, there's more that we could be doing on attracting international students and providing our students with international experiences,” Underwood said. “Now, it may end up looking different than that, because as we explore certain ideas, again, maybe they aren't as feasible in one way, but they become more feasible in another way. That doesn't mean just because that particular thing doesn't happen, it doesn’t mean the concept isn’t happening.”
Other alumni would also like to see increased efforts to communicate from the current administration. Underwood and the Board of Trustees have put out at least one statement directly to the alumni, a statement that was criticized by some in the Facebook group as being too broad and generic.
“It's hard to, to respond to every single concern that might be raised and, and in a timely fashion. Get the word out about where things stand and where we're going and how we're achieving things,” said Kevin McQuade, a 1978 Eureka graduate and associate professor of theater at the college from 1985 to 1991.
“All of that said, I think the communications from the executive team of the administration, as well as the board of trustees has been, to be kind, sparse.”
Underwood said he’s committed to returning emails and phone calls he receives and spoke specifically about the use of the Facebook group when asked about alumni communications.
“Personally, I don't think that social media is exactly the forum for informed and civil debate,.” said Underwood. “It often devolves into speculation and discord.”
However, “We’re going to communicate in every way we can,” he said — though he did go on to acknowledge he has a fiduciary responsibility to the institution as a board member and, as a result, there’s some information he can’t share.
Stephen Kirk is a 1987 Eureka Graduate and a former president of the college’s Alumni Board from 2007 to 2009. Kirk remembers an open line of communication between him and David Arnold, the former president of the college.
“I had his cell number, he had mine, you know, here I am alumni board president, and I'm going back and forth with the president of the college, and he cared about my insights and asked me about those things,” Kirk said. “I'm hoping that happens. Now, I really don't know whether it does or it doesn't.”
Kirk has been following the discussions in the Facebook group, but is cautioning against taking the publicly available data as the full picture.
“Those things kind of frustrated me, because, yeah, I understand people care about them,” said Kirk. “But you also don't know what happened. I'm more about: ‘hey, let's make sure the school can continue, continue to be what it's always been.’ And that's what's most important to me.”
That’s a sentiment that’s common among the alumni and other stakeholders, both those interviewed for this story and commenting in the Facebook group: Eureka College is special to them and they want to be assured of its security.
“When somebody asked me, you know: ‘what's great about Eureka, why would I go to Eureka?’, I would say, you know: ‘it's a family’ and I still think that's true,” said Kirk. “Today, there's certainly been changes to the school, and that happens, right? But I think that's still the core value.”
McQuade feels similarly.
“All of us want the college to succeed. It would be just awful if it was not able to survive and thrive,” he said. “And right now, we want to place this at the doorstep of the board and ask them: ‘please answer the questions and communicate with us.’”
Underwood also addressed football coach Barth's departure, the event that played a role in the creation of the Facebook page that widened the scope of the entire Eureka College conversation.
“I met coach Barth when I was on campus as a student, I certainly have appreciated all he's done for the college and the way he led on the field and the way he poured into our student athletes,” said Underwood. “I'm also excited about what's to come. This football program is going to have a next chapter that's going to take it to the next level that's going to build on what coach Barth has done.”
He said the college expects to have more concrete news on the football program in the next few days. That's one update on the future of Eureka — potentially the first in a long road ahead for a rural private institution with a crowd of invested alumni behind it.
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