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Getting a college degree was their dream. Then their school suddenly closed for good.

The coronavirus has thrown many colleges into financial crisis. More students could soon experience the pain that hit Detroit’s Marygrove College in 2017.
From left, Jasmine and Michael Stone, Janita Gay, and Darren Napier were all students at Marygrove College when it suddenly closed for undergraduates in 2017.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

This article about Marygrove College was produced in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. This is part 4 of the Colleges in Crisis series.

DETROIT — Three years later, Michael Stone can still picture the pride he would have seen on his mother's face as he sat down at the piano for his senior recital at Marygrove College.

He can still imagine his little brothers and sisters — all 15 of them — watching with admiration as he played that capstone performance. It would have marked the completion of his music degree and celebrated his arrival as the first college graduate in his family.

“I was so pumped about senior recital and my bachelor’s,” said Stone, 27, who noted that some of his siblings had expressed interest in college because they’d seen their big brother’s success. “It was getting ready to happen.”

But then, on Aug. 9, 2017 — just weeks before Stone was to begin his senior year at the small Roman Catholic college in northwest Detroit — he got an urgent call from a friend telling him to check the college’s website.

Michael Stone was never able to perform his senior piano recital at Marygrove College.
Michael Stone was never able to perform his senior piano recital at Marygrove College.Courtesy Michael Stone

There, he read in disbelief that after 112 years, including decades devoted to serving students from Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods, Marygrove College would end its undergraduate programs after the coming semester. Facing skyrocketing debt and an enrollment that had fallen from 1,850 in 2013 to less than half that in 2017, the college hoped that sacrificing its undergraduate programs would save its graduate school. But that didn’t work; the graduate school closed in 2019.

The closings displaced hundreds of students, including many for whom college wasn’t easy to begin with.

“Most of my family dropped out of high school or didn’t finish high school. I was the first to actually take the leap of faith,” Stone said.

“I worked hard, so hard,” Stone added. “And then, all in one moment, it was gone.”

Marygrove students are among the tens of thousands across the country who’ve received crushing news like this in recent years. Dozens of colleges and universities have closed since 2016 as institutions confront rising expenses and dwindling government support.

Now with the coronavirus pandemic creating unparalleled challenges in higher education, some experts warn that many more colleges could be in deep financial trouble.

That means many more students could soon find themselves where Marygrove students were three years ago, reeling from a closing. Since then, some former Marygrove students say they’ve struggled to get their credits to transfer to other colleges. Others dropped out and gave up on their college dreams.

Losing a college is “like a death,” said Heather Maietta, a professor of higher education leadership at Regis College in Massachusetts who has studied the impact of college closures.

“It’s losing a piece of them that they’re never going to get back.”

‘That college for the community’

People with ties to Marygrove College often use reverent terms to describe the close-knit institution.

“It was a jewel,” said Diane McMillan, 69, a lifelong Detroiter who taught in the college’s social work program for 24 years. “People remember Marygrove as being that college for the community.”

Founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary as a women’s college in Monroe, Michigan, in 1905, it moved onto its 53-acre Detroit campus in the 1920s, where it served generations of working-class students.

“It was the best example of mission-based education,” said Anne White-O’Hara, 64, a history professor who taught at Marygrove for 31 years. Her great aunt was in Marygrove’s first Detroit class in 1928, and her mother and aunts attended in the 1940s, she said. “They were educating young women to become professionals and quite honestly changed the story of my parents’ life.”

As Detroit changed through the 20th century, the college, a lush oasis of green lawns and elegant stone buildings in the middle of an urban neighborhood, leaned into its social mission. In the wake of the deadly 1967 uprising when Black Detroiters clashed with police, the college in 1968 recruited 68 Black women as a symbolic gesture of racial healing to a campus that had been largely white. Three years later, it began enrolling men.

Image: Marygrove College closed in 2017.
Marygrove College closed its undergraduate programs in 2017.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

Alysia Kennedy, 26, said she chose to enroll at Margrove in 2015 in part because her mother had been one of those 68 women.

“She loved her experience being around other Black women, experiencing being in that first Black group,” Kennedy said, though her mother also recalled hearing racist comments from white students.

Marygrove soon built a reputation for supporting older students, many of them Black, who lived near the college.

“A lot of them worked two or three jobs. They had children. They made sacrifices, and teachers were sensitive to that,” McMillan said.

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Faculty were almost “intrusive” in their efforts to support students, calling them if they didn’t come to class, White-O’Hara said.

“Every graduation ceremony, I would cry,” said White-O’Hara, who was president of the Faculty Assembly in the college’s final days. “I’d see these students whose lives would be transformed like my mom’s was.”

‘The rug is ripped out from under you’

When the news broke that Marygrove would end undergraduate classes, students and faculty members felt betrayed.

They knew the college had financial trouble. But it had always managed to stay open.

“We had been to the brink many times before,” said Elizabeth Burns, a third-generation Margrove graduate who took over as president in 2016.

As president, Burns tried to boost enrollment but was limited by a tight budget. The financial situation was dire, according to a report compiled by the Kresge Foundation, which has been deeply involved in supporting the college and is now working to bring new programs to its campus. The college, which had been overspending for years, nearly ran out of money in both 2015 and 2016 and had to seek emergency funds. Debts the college incurred years earlier when it was recovering from a recession and trying to build facilities that might attract more students were coming due. At least one loan was already in default.

The college’s endowment had dwindled to $500,000 — far less than other nearby private colleges whose average endowments were 70 times that amount. The college also had difficulty collecting unpaid tuition. Tuition, which was roughly $22,000 for full-time undergraduates in 2017, was also heavily subsidized for many students. And, in 2017, the U.S. Department of Education, concerned about dwindling enrollment, said it wouldn’t release student financial aid dollars to the college without a $7.2 million letter of credit.

“When you’re a small, tuition-driven, very small endowment college, you don't have the resources,” Burns said.

When the spring semester ended in 2017, Burns said she believed she could enroll enough students over the summer to stay open in the fall. That’s why she reassured students and staff who asked about the college’s fate, noting that being too public about the college’s troubles would only hurt enrollment.

But when she announced the closure in August, students and faculty members said they felt they’d been lied to.

By then, students had already paid tuition and were getting ready to move into the dorms. Faculty members said it was too late in the year to find other academic jobs.

Three years later, many are still grieving, said Jann Hoge, 65, a social work professor at Marygrove for 22 years.

“The rug is ripped out from under you, and you never really recover from that kind of loss,” she said. “In Detroit, Marygrove really provided something special that is not provided by any other institutions.”

‘I feel so far behind in life’

In some ways, Marygrove students were better off than others whose colleges have closed.

They had a semester to finish things up, which not all closing colleges provide, said Maietta, the Regis College professor.

Marygrove provided students with counselors who could help them transfer. It created agreements with several colleges that welcomed Marygrove students. The Kresge Foundation created a fund to help students with transfer expenses.

Still, many Marygrove students say they struggled.

Kennedy, who chose Marygrove because of her mother’s experience in 1968, transferred to the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, about 10 miles from Marygrove. But the classes were much bigger than what she was used to, and she no longer had the support of attentive teachers. She failed two classes and dropped out.

Alysia Kennedy.
Alysia Kennedy.Courtesy Alysia Kennedy

“My confidence was shot,” she said. “I thought something was wrong with me.”

Now she’s back in college again, still hoping to become a child behavioral therapist, but she’s anxious about the time she has lost.

“I feel so far behind in life,” she said. “You see all your friends on Facebook and Instagram and they’re all graduated and moving out of the state and have jobs and are starting families, and I’m not even done with school yet.”

For Janita Gay, 47, who was studying child development, the closing of Marygrove meant taking six classes in that final semester while also working full-time. She graduated, but not with her 81-year-old grandmother who had been attending Marygrove with her but dropped out after the closure.

“I hate that the kids that are coming up now will not be able to have that personable sense of family and community,” she said.

For Joe Slivik, 25, the school’s closure ended his college baseball career. By the time Marygrove announced it was closing in August, most other college teams were full. Many of his teammates dropped out or transferred far from Detroit. He chose to hang up his spikes and finish his social work degree at nearby University of Detroit Mercy, but he lost the support of teammates who had been like brothers to him.

“For student athletes, that sport is a big part of your self identity, your self esteem,” he said. “To just kind of yank it out by the roots, it puts people in a very weird spot. You end up asking, now who am I? I’m not ‘Joe the baseball player’ anymore.”

News: Joe Slivik addresses crowd
Joe Slivik addresses a rally in protest of the college's decision to end its undergraduate program after the fall semester on Sept. 16, 2017.Hasan Dudar / Detroit Free Press

Darren Napier, 34, finished his social work degree at the University of Detroit Mercy but says his credits didn’t transfer cleanly and the process was confusing.

It took him an extra year and a half to complete his degree, which meant he ran out of financial aid and now has a $12,000 tuition balance he hadn’t expected. The college won’t give him his diploma until he pays that debt, which has made job and licensing applications difficult.

“It caused a whole lot of problems,” he said. “I was one of those students that was determined to finish, but I know a lot of people that just dropped out.”

‘Marygrove took my trust’

Michael Stone, 27, and his wife Jasmine.
Michael Stone, 27, and his wife Jasmine. She graduated from Marygrove in its final semester. He left with an associate's degree.Sylvia Jarrus / for NBC News

Stone, the music student, said he needed only 10 or 11 more classes when Marygrove closed, but many weren’t offered in the college’s final undergraduate semester. Most music programs in the area had different requirements that would have forced him to largely start over.

The one area school that would have taken most of Stone’s credits was Concordia University Ann Arbor but, without a car, that would have meant a two-hour commute on three buses.

Stone left Marygrove with an associate’s degree. He was discouraged to see that jobs he wanted to apply for, such as a music director at a local college, required a bachelor’s degree.

Now he works for a mortgage company.

“It’s not my passion,” he said. “I’m working 50 hours a week, taxing hours, and it’s not even what I love to do.”

He knows he could go back to school, and his employer has a program that would help with tuition.

“But the problem isn’t the money,” he said. “The problem is my faith in college now. Marygrove took my trust in college.”

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CORRECTION (Aug. 4, 2020, 6:19 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the year that Elizabeth Burns became president of Marygrove College. It was 2016, not 2015.