Update (March 6, 2023): The King’s College said it received “bridge financing” to finish the spring semester. The student newspaper the Empire State Tribune reported that the financing was a $2 million loan from Primacorp CEO Peter Chung, whose company had been in a contract with the college for online education and other administrative functions at the school. The loan does not solve the school’s problems after the spring semester.
Original post (February 28, 2023): The financial crisis in Christian higher education has hit The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York City, with the school saying it needs $2.6 million to finish this semester and to avoid the real possibility that it will have to close entirely after this school year.
The interim provost Matthew Parks told students in mid-February that the school was discussing transfers with other schools in the event of closure and that the school had been in touch with the Department of Homeland Security about making arrangements for international students.
The college so far has been able to raise only $200,000 of the $2.6 million shortfall for this semester, according to a spokesperson. The fate of the school could be announced any day—it is currently seeking partnerships or a merger with another school as a last-ditch bailout.
King’s spokesperson Katelyn Tamm told CT that “there is no current plan to close the college mid-semester” and that commencement logistics had been set for May, with Christopher Scalia, the son of Justice Antonin Scalia, as the speaker.
“Our top priority is to help students finish the semester at King's well,” Tamm said. “We already have transfer agreements in place with other institutions and are working on others, which include transfer credit and financial aid arrangements, to provide students with options for the fall in the event that the college needs to close.”
Though King’s has had struggles with enrollment, its bigger issue appears to be that it relied heavily on big donors who disappeared in recent years, according to public tax filings and interviews with people at the college.
It had no significant New York real estate to offset those financial challenges, so it was stuck paying high New York rents and salaries. Other prominent Christian organizations, like the American Bible Society, left the city in recent years for less expensive places.
In a fundraising appeal at the beginning of February, the school said it faced “the perfect storm of a slow, post-COVID-19 recovery, an economic decline, and rising interest rates which have complicated the sale of” its single $20 million property.
The sudden announcement of the school’s troubles in an email to its community at the beginning of February has left students, faculty, staff, and alumni reeling.
“I personally had no idea that things would get this bad so fast,” said Rafa Oliveira, a junior from Brazil who said things seemed fine until he arrived for this spring semester. “Morale is really low for a lot of people on campus. … The end of King’s could be the end of the American dream for me. We’ll have to see what the Lord has in store.”
The troubles appear to be caused by losing some key donors. According to public tax filings, gifts to the school dramatically dropped after the 2018 death of billionaire and Amway cofounder Richard DeVos, who gave tens of millions to the school.
The school has also had a lot of leadership turnover. Four people on the nine-person board joined last year, and only two board members have been around since before 2017. The presidency at King’s also turned over in 2022, with Tim Gibson stepping down and interim president Stockwell Day, a Canadian politician, taking charge.
Students at the small school—it has about 400 undergrads—say this semester has been tight with stress as rumors have circulated. They are coping with their school’s possible closure in their own ways.
Some got ice cream and walked around Brooklyn, dancing with a boom box to try to enjoy what might be their last weeks together. One student started a TKC Letters Project website where students posted stories about the school’s effect on their lives.
A few nights ago, Oliveira said he and his friends watched “a dope movie” together that was about trauma and analyzed it for almost an hour afterward based on a class they’ve been taking—“It was the most King’s movie night ever.”
Oliveira, who is a soccer player and the director of spiritual life in student government, is trying to figure out other schools he could go to; scholarships would be his number one priority. But the process of being an international student is daunting enough that he feels like he can’t think about it and is trying to focus on being a student and finishing the semester.
He grew up a missionary kid in South Africa, where he was used to things being uncertain—but finally he had been in one place for a long time at King’s: “I thought something was permanent.”
Student journalists at the school newspaper have been working late nights to cover all the developments of the financial crisis, with their work being cited in national media.
“The last four weeks have been a bit of a blur,” said Melinda Huspen, a junior and the managing editor of the student newspaper, the Empire State Tribune. “Even if the school does close, for the student journalists this was a really, really good experience with having … an opportunity to put our skills to the test, to practice what we’ve been learning.”
Huspen works as a nanny in addition to having a rigorous academic schedule and covering the school’s financial crisis for the paper. She receives a scholarship for full tuition that requires a high GPA.
“I’m doing my best to remain faithful,” she said, “to continue praying for the school and trust that it will all work out in the end.”
Oliveira noted that most juniors at King’s missed a normal graduation from high school because of the pandemic, and now they’re facing the disruption of their senior year of college too. Some received past-due rent notices in their dorms because the college was behind on rent payments, according to the student newspaper.
Some faculty have shuffled classes to be done with their curriculum sooner, in case the school doesn’t make it to the end of the semester. They, too, are facing the possibility of their jobs being gone and a bleak employment outlook for Christian higher education. Some young alumni started a round-the-clock prayer spreadsheet to pray for the school.
Financial trouble, with a dash of Manhattan prices
Trinity International University, also facing financial trouble, recently announced that it was shutting down in-person learning and moving its undergrad program online after the semester ends in May.
Christian colleges have turned desperately to online education in the face of declining enrollment, some with success. King’s tried that approach too in 2021, enlisting the for-profit company Primacorp, which promised to significantly boost enrollment through online education. That didn’t pan out.
“Online school isn’t for every college … especially for schools that advertise really rigorous degrees,” said Huspen.
The dean of academic affairs, Kimberly Reeve, told students in February, according to a transcript from the student journalists, that King’s was awaiting a $1.5 million COVID-19 grant for employee retention. Then if the school could sell its one $20 million Wall Street property, that would free up about $1 million. (Because the school took a line of credit on the building, any sale would go toward settling that credit.) King’s also has a small endowment, about $500,000, according to a 2021 audit.
“One of the core reasons [for financial problems] is that the funding gap was filled by a couple of really large donors,” said Huspen, the student editor. “One of the things I’ve seen that King’s failed to do is rearrange their budget when Richard DeVos passed away. … My understanding is they proceeded largely as normal … and it’s caught up to them.”
Kimberly Thornbury spent about six years at King’s leading institutional research, strategic planning, enrollment, and communication—leaving in 2019. Her mother, Carolyn Wilson Carmichael, graduated from King’s back in 1958; her father, Jack Carmichael, was on the board of Northeastern Bible College when it shut down in 1990 and directed $1 million of the sale of that school to King’s. She loves the school and is distressed at what’s happened.
“The silver bullet was rent. … It was the tipping point of how much had to be raised” each year, Thornbury told CT. “It’s literally a real estate situation. Where was the board after 9/11 or 2008, when there were deals to be had?”
Her experience at King’s, she said, taught her the importance of a high-quality, engaged board.
She also said the school felt pressure from donors that were “more to the right” when the school wasn’t as conservative. Donors wanted “Christian-right language,” she said, and she recalled having to go on speaking circuits with conservative figures like Charlie Kirk to help raise money.
Raising at least $8 million a year to keep the lights on was a tall task, she recalled. “You burn through that line of credit really fast.”
A history involving Campus Crusade and Billy Graham
Evangelist Percy Crawford began the school in New Jersey in 1938, and Billy Graham served on the board in the 1960s. Graham argued there should be an evangelical college in Manhattan, but that didn’t happen until later.
King’s had a sudden closure in 1994, when it was a school in Westchester County just north of New York City. New York’s Board of Regents ordered the school to close just a few weeks before the end of the fall semester, citing financial problems and an insufficient number of qualified faculty.
“Action to date does not preclude the college’s opening again,” Joyce Anderson, the vice president of academic affairs, told CT at the time.
King’s did reopen in 1999 in Manhattan, with financial help from Campus Crusade for Christ, or Cru as it is now known. Thornbury’s dad told her Campus Crusade provided the school with $5 million in seed money to pay off old debt and restart.
Thornbury said it was “one of the many miracles about The King’s College” that it reopened in 1999, because it was able to retain its charter—which she said is “tough, tough, tough”—from the New York Board of Regents. The board is unique in its power to decide on whether schools can operate.
The idea of a college in Manhattan was to bring Christian students to spheres of influence. A Christian college in Manhattan “doesn’t happen every day,” Thornbury said. Nyack College, now known as Alliance University, recently moved across the street from King’s to add another evangelical school to the island.
The mission has paid off: King’s has made a name for itself with its alumni landing in prominent New York jobs in journalism, finance, law, and think tanks. It also had a series of high-profile presidents, with the most notorious being Dinesh D’Souza, who was caught in an affair as president and later pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud.
Another former president, Andy Mills, was co-CEO of Archegos Capital, which collapsed in 2021 and shook the global financial system. The Archegos founder, Bill Hwang, faces federal fraud charges over the collapse, although Mills is not charged with any wrongdoing. Hwang’s Grace and Mercy Foundation gave about $500,000 to King’s in 2019.
Whatever the current administration decides about closing, students are “spending a lot of time with each other and soaking everything in,” said Oliveira.
“There’s opportunity to be hopeful, for us to be like, ‘All right, God, this is hard, but you are good. You can do more than we ask, hope for, or think,’” he said.
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