The Second Life of a Christian College in Manhattan Nears Its End
Administrators at The King’s College, a small Christian liberal arts college in Manhattan, have been meeting with students in recent weeks to deliver a grim message: All of you should find someplace else to go to school.
Between the pandemic and a business deal gone bad, the college had struggled for years. But what began as a handful of layoffs in November quickly escalated to a doomsday scenario. Now it appears likely the school will close, and school officials have been going from department to department to show students a list of schools that might accept them as transfer students.
The King’s College is a small school. But as the city’s only high-profile evangelical college committed to “the truths of Christianity and a biblical worldview,” it is more well known than its enrollment numbers — over 600 students before the pandemic, down to roughly half that now — might suggest.
Its sudden decline has drawn national attention.
Most of its students are white, and many come from conservative households far from New York City. For them, King’s has been a pathway to a world beyond their lives back home, where roughly half were home-schooled or attended private, often Christian, academies.
In interviews, most said they hoped to stay in New York and transfer to non-evangelical schools, like Fordham University, Columbia University or the City University of New York. Representatives of the college did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“The one truth I am committed to is biblical truth,” said Matthew Peterson, 19, who said he grew up in a “homogeneous” Christian community in Ohio. “I really wanted to come to New York, where I knew I would be confronted with all sorts of ways of living and belief systems.”
Before the pandemic, the school dreamed of expanding, to give its brand of nondenominational Christianity a secure place in the country’s media and financial capital. But it appears instead to have been undone by a pandemic-related decline in enrollment and revenue. An unsuccessful foray into the world of for-profit online education, meant to help, may have only accelerated the downward spiral.
At a recent meeting, Paul Glader, a journalism professor, told students in his department to do everything they could to secure a spot at another school.
“If I were in your shoes, I would apply to all these schools, I would pray a lot, I would talk to my parents a lot. This is your life,” he said, as two administrators standing nearby nodded in agreement. “That being said, I hope we survive.”
King’s was founded in 1938 and moved campuses twice before it shut down in 1994 during an earlier period of declining enrollment and financial woe. It was revived in 1999 by Campus Crusade for Christ, whose founder, Bill Bright, said he wanted the school to educate two million students within its first decade.
The school never came close to that. But not long ago, it appeared to be standing on solid ground.
Before the pandemic, donations were reliable enough that King’s purchased a former hotel that it converted into a dorm named in honor of Richard and Helen DeVos, the parents-in-law of former U.S. education secretary Betsy DeVos. They were longtime donors who died in 2018 and 2017.
Before the school moved downtown in 2012, it boasted a rented campus in the Empire State Building. The high profile conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza once served as its president.
Some students recoil at comparisons of their school with other Christian colleges that have become associated with political conservatism, like Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.
“A lot of institutions subscribe to the label ‘Christian,’ but it comes along with a lot of political baggage that I know people here at King’s find to be unhelpful,” said Eli Johnson, 18. “The term ‘Christian’ for us does not mean Republican or Democrat or conservative or liberal, it is about Christ.”
King’s has always been a little different. Faculty are required to sign a statement of faith affirming their belief in seventeen “basic Bible teachings,” but students are not required to attest to any belief system or to attend religious services or events.
In interviews on campus, some students said the school’s biblical foundation was not a factor in their deciding to enroll. Others said it mattered to them, but was ultimately less important than the school’s location in Manhattan or its financial aid packages, which could be generous.
But since 1999, King’s has run multimillion dollar deficits each year and relied primarily on donations to make ends meet.
That became harder to do in recent years because of the death of several major donors, including Richard and Helen De Vos and William Lee Hanley Jr., one former official said.
Fundraising was also complicated by a growing expectation from conservative donors that evangelical colleges vocally support former president Donald J. Trump, which King’s has not done, the official said.
To combat the headwinds from the pandemic, King’s decided to expand into online education, where it could market a biblically-based curriculum to the same demographic — Christian families and home schooled students — that it relied on for its in-person enrollment.
It partnered in May 2021 with Primacorp Ventures Inc., a Canadian for-profit postsecondary education company that also operates commercial real state, self-storage facilities and senior living facilities.
When it announced the partnership, King’s said Primacorp would focus on “student recruitment, marketing, and fundraising” and the school would design the online courses.
But the goals were not realistic.
In the summer of 2022, DeVos Hall was put up for sale, just three years after it was unveiled. Tim Gibson, the president who negotiated the partnership with Primacorp, resigned soon thereafter.
Layoffs were announced two months later, followed by budget cuts in January. In departmental meetings in March, students were urged to leave the school for their own good.
Recently, the college announced it had received a last minute $2 million loan from Peter Chung, the chairman and chief executive officer of Primacorp, that would allow it to survive until the end of the semester.
Melinda Huspen, 20, an editor and writer for the campus newspaper who has closely followed the school’s unravelingcame to King’s largely because of a full scholarship and networking opportunities in the city, she said.
“I didn’t want to be educated in a Christian bubble,” said Ms. Huspen, who was home-schooled in Colorado.
Mr. Johnson said he planned to stay in New York no matter what. “It is kind of hard to step away from Manhattan,” he said.
But also, he said, he could not imagine a better place to be a Christian.
“My plan is to stay in the city whether or not King’s is still here,” said Mr. Johnson. “Where better to love and serve people? It is the highest density of people of every background. Where better to thrive?”
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