GREENSBORO — A decade ago, Greensboro College was flying high.
Enrollment at the private Methodist Church-affiliated school had reached record levels. A capital campaign had secured gifts and pledges of nearly $60 million. There were even plans to build a football stadium.
But when the recession hit, Greensboro College found itself fending off creditors, battling to save its accreditation and trying to recruit students to a campus that seemed close to closing down.
Similar troubles have swamped other small colleges. But Greensboro College survived — and now it seems to be thriving.
The college welcomed its largest incoming class this fall. Budgets are in the black. The school hopes to hear next week that its accreditation will be renewed for 10 years — a major milestone for the college.
“We’re executing (our) plan. It’s working,” President Lawrence Czarda said in a recent interview. “We’re back on track. We’re growing. We’re healthy. And we’re financially stable.”
A dire situation
In the summer of 2009, Greensboro College was featured prominently in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The weekly national newspaper detailed a college in deep financial trouble.
Greensboro, like most small private colleges, depends largely on student tuition and fees to meet payroll and cover its bills. When enrollment dipped, expenses piled up. The college’s endowment had lost 40 percent of its value.
The stark fiscal situation had led to layoffs and temporary pay cuts of 20 percent. The college’s financial troubles were compounded by earlier decisions to buy a former YMCA building, an old motel across the street from campus and 30 acres off campus for practice fields.
“We outran our headlights in terms of capital expenses,” said Walter Newton, the chairman of the board of trustees. “Our enrollment growth wasn’t keeping up with our capital expansion.”
Things got worse. A month after the Chronicle article ran, college President Craven Williams quit after 16 years. The board of trustees chairman stepped down soon after.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges noticed the financial struggles, too, and sanctioned Greensboro College in 2009 and again in 2011. At one point, the U.S. Department of Education required the college to post a letter of credit to receive federal financial aid payments.
Internally, college leaders referred to this mounting pressure — from its lenders, from the Southern Association, from the federal education department — as an existential threat to the school.
The financial situation was indeed dire, recalled C. Brent DeVore, who served as interim president after Williams left.
“It was in a state of change,” said DeVore, the retired president of Otterbein University in Ohio who’s now a Greensboro College trustee. “It was a case of, now what do we do?”
The college, DeVore added, “had to reinvent itself. That was a very important part of the (presidential) search.”
House in order
The person hired to revive Greensboro College was Lawrence Czarda, a bespectacled, quick-talking and energetic college administrator from Virginia.
Before coming to Greensboro, Czarda had worked for nearly 30 years at George Mason University, a public university in Fairfax, Va., with more than 30,000 students. Czarda said Greensboro reminded him of Bridgewater College, the private school in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that he graduated from in the 1970s.
Czarda’s first order of business was shoring up Greensboro’s finances. More layoffs and budget cuts ensued. The college eliminated its Spanish program and four minors. To reduce its debts, the college sold the president’s house, its off-campus practice fields and a former motel it had converted into student housing.
This austerity plan worked. Three years ago this month, the Southern Association lifted the sanctions that threatened the college’s accreditation. The federal education department also removed its financial restrictions.
The college’s finances have remained in the black. According to its latest federal tax disclosure, revenues were $1.2 million more than expenses for the fiscal year that ended in 2015.
But enrollment was slower to come around. From 2008 to 2014, the student body shrank by about 30 percent. Most of the decline came in the graduate ranks, as faculty members retired or left for other schools and the college focused its recruiting efforts on its undergraduate core.
The negative publicity didn’t help. Czarda said competing schools used Greensboro’s financial problems to peel away prospective students.
“It does hurt,” he said.
Amanda Owens, a senior sociology major from Florida, enrolled in fall 2013. She fell in love with the small classes, the in-depth conversations she had with her professors and the temperate North Carolina weather.
But Owens said she was unaware of the college’s struggles until a professor suggested that she should look at other schools in case Greensboro lost its accreditation.
“It worried me a lot,” said Owens, now a co-editor of the college’s student newspaper. But once the accreditation danger passed, she added, “there was no reason to go anyplace else.”
Arts are a strength
As the college dealt with its immediate troubles, it also planned for the future.
The college’s leaders asked themselves: What does the college do well? What are the college’s strengths? Why do students come here? Their answers led to new academic offerings and a renewed emphasis on existing strengths.
“You can’t just throw things against the wall anymore and hope. You have to be rifle-shot focused,” said Newton, the trustees board chairman. “You have to be really intentional and really focused on the type of student that your value proposition resonates with.”
The college had the area’s first college music program, for instance, and its theater program is consistently strong. College leaders thought its fine arts program was ripe for growth.
Last fall, the college gave a part-time theater professor a second assignment: recruit students at theater and music conferences.
William Perry Morgan said his pitch is pretty simple: Greensboro College is a small school that puts on a lot of plays and shows, which means there are plenty of roles even for first-year students. Professors are working professionals. The program’s graduates get jobs after college.
“It’s a family-oriented community here,” said Morgan, assistant professor of theatre who doubles as the college’s fine arts recruiter. “That’s what helps to sell the program.”
The numbers say that Morgan’s pitch is working. In one year, the number of new theatre majors has nearly doubled. This fall, nearly a quarter of the college’s incoming class plans to major in the arts.
Senior Albin Pettersson said Morgan convinced him to transfer to Greensboro a year ago after he got his associate degree at a Florida college.
“Perry was the one who made me feel wanted,” Pettersson said.
In three semesters, he has appeared in six performances, including a lead role in a drama in April. After graduating this month, he’ll head off to auditions for professional roles, confident in the training he has received.
“I feel very ready,” Pettersson said. “I’m excited.”
Sports are ‘huge’
One big reason why students come to Greensboro College? It’s sports.
Though Greensboro competes at the NCAA’s Division III level — which means there are no athletics scholarships — about 40 percent of its students play on one of its 17 varsity teams. College leaders say that nearly every member of the college’s two-year-old wrestling squad wouldn’t be at Greensboro if the team didn’t exist.
Last fall, the college spent $1 million — its largest capital expense in more than 10 years — to install artificial turf on its on-campus athletics field. At the time, Czarda called the project “the single most important step the college could take to help boost enrollment and improve the student experience.”
Torao Yasunaga, a freshman, wanted to play golf in college. He wasn’t recruited out of high school in Ohio, so his father looked for Division III schools. He found that Greensboro had won a national golf championship five years ago.
The team had a roster spot, and Yasunaga said he liked what he saw on his campus visit. When the college offered a generous financial aid package, Yasunaga headed south.
He said sports are “huge” at Greensboro. His roommate also plays on the golf team. He shares a residence hall floor with two lacrosse players, two soccer players, a wrestler and three football players.
“I barely know someone who’s not an athlete,” Yasunaga said.
The college has traveled down several other intentional paths to find students.
Greensboro is among a handful of North Carolina colleges that offers a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. It’s a credential popular among international teachers who work here now and plan to return home to teach English. Since the college hired a permanent director for the program two years ago — part of the job involves recruiting — enrollment has grown fourfold.
The college has found that its small size and intimate setting resonates with students who are the first members of their families to attend college. This fall, 60 percent of the incoming class is first-generation college students.
To attract students wary of the cost — full-time undergraduates will pay nearly $40,000 to attend Greensboro next year — the college recently began offering a loan repayment assistance program. Called the GC Guarantee, it helps graduates repay their student loans if their first job after college pays less than $35,000 a year.
This focus is paying off. This fall, the college welcomed its largest-ever class of 314 new freshmen and transfer students. The population of traditional-aged undergraduates was the largest in 10 years. Overall enrollment was up for the second straight year and topped 1,000 for the first time since 2013.
“We’re doing what we do very, very well,” Czarda said, adding, “We feel good about the numbers.”
So what’s ahead?
Greensboro plans to strengthen its connection with its Methodist roots and fortify its current offerings in religion, ethics and philosophy. Three new master’s degree programs are being considered.
Czarda said enrollment can grow by about 20 percent to roughly 1,300 students before college leaders have to think about adding classrooms and residence halls. He called that number “comfortable” for the college.
With its crises in the past, Czarda feels good about the future of the institution.
“The fact that we got through what we did, as deep as the financial crisis was — I think that speaks to the fact that there’s something very, very strong and positive here,” he said. “There’s a reason this place has existed for 178 years.”
Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.