SWAMPSCOTT — Roderick Love-Smith was so, so close. The Marian Court College senior needed just two more classes to complete his degree in criminal justice; then he planned to fulfill his dream of joining the military.
But everything changed Monday night, when Love-Smith was blindsided by news that the 50-year-old Catholic college will shut its doors later this month because of financial problems.
“I’m just very frustrated,” he said Tuesday, as he returned to the seaside campus to figure out what to do next.
Love-Smith and other students on the cusp of graduating were sad as they mulled their fates and mourned that of their school, which announced its closure in an e-mail to the college community.
“Believe me, it’s the last thing I wanted to do,” president Denise Hammon said in a brief interview on campus.
But the college, struggling to stay afloat after several years of deficits, decided this week that its challenges were too great.
The Sisters of Mercy founded the college in 1964 as a two-year secretarial school for women. The campus includes a former mansion that served as President Calvin Coolidge’s “summer White House.”
Marian Court is now a four-year college and last month graduated its final class, of 67 students, including 41 who received the school’s first four-year degrees in business and criminal justice.
The college depends heavily on tuition, and enrollment has fluctuated. The number of students grew to 266 last year from 174 the year before, but overall has declined in the past 10 years.
In a statement, trustees called the school’s financial challenges “insurmountable.”
Marian Court, with 61 employees, reported expenses last year that exceeded revenue by half a million dollars, the third straight year of losses. It reported gross receipts of $2.8 million and a shrinking $413,000 endowment, according to tax documents.
Hammon earned $173,777 last year, a low salary for a college president. Tuition and fees cost $16,500 per year.
Other students on campus Tuesday said Marian’s closure is even more heartbreaking because the school has a close-knit community.
Oxana Gutkin, 42, an evening student and a Russian immigrant, said Marian is the only college where she felt comfortable and was able to work on her English.
“Here it is like family,” Gutkin said.
Current students will be allowed to matriculate to Salem State University, according to Hammon. While she is not sure that all credits from Marian will transfer, she said that it will be “as close as possible.”
The school said it will also try to help faculty and staff find new jobs.
Love-Smith said he doesn’t have enough money to pay for many more classes than the five credits he needs to graduate.
“I’m broke right now,” he said.
Marian Court’s situation is similar to that of a growing number of tuition-dependent small colleges across the country that struggle as fewer students apply. Some have closed, some have merged with larger schools, and many more are living hand-to-mouth.
To attract students, schools often build nicer facilities or offer steep tuition discounts, steps that also put pressure on their bottom lines and don’t always work as successful draws.
Montserrat College of Art, in Beverly, is considering merging with Salem State.
Ken Redd, director of research and policy analysis at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, said mergers will probably be more common than closures.
“As enrollments decline you’ll see some schools lose enrollment despite their best efforts,” Redd said.
Nearby residents expressed disappointment after hearing of the college’s misfortune. Because Marian doesn’t have dormitories, many students live in Swampscott and other neighboring towns and cities. Neighbors described the students as respectful and called the institution a part of the fabric of the area.
“It was a great help to a lot of students.” said Barry Josephs, a resident of Lynn who was walking along the ocean in Swampscott Tuesday. “I think it’s a loss to the local community.”
Shortly after the initial shock, students Tuesday started worrying about their next steps. Many visited Marian to get transcripts and begin applying to other schools.
Jared Lopez, who just completed his freshman year, said transfer deadlines at most schools have already passed. In a hallway, waiting to get his transcript, he stared at a large stack of college applications.
“We’re kind of thrown to the wolves here,” Lopez said.