Sparing a Dime to Save a College

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Ira Toles

Morris Brown College president Stanley Pritchett addresses reporters, alumni and students after the school reached an agreement with the city of Atlanta to continue water service.

You know times are tough when spare change from a few generous strangers stands between you and financial ruin. But Atlanta's embattled Morris Brown College will take what it can get. Dimes and quarters trickled into the school's coffers last week as part of an outpouring of community and alumni generosity that allowed the college to appease its debt collectors and keep its doors open — at least for another month.

As Harvard and other deep-pocketed universities grapple with shrinking endowments by halting construction projects and freezing salaries, smaller schools that have no safety cushions are struggling to keep the lights on and the water running — literally. Morris Brown, a historically black school founded by freed slaves 22 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, found itself facing $380,000 in overdue water bills in December, prompting the city to dry up service to the campus. Without short-term loans to pay off some of its millions in debt, Morris Brown announced, it would have to close for the spring and possibly forever. Luckily, alumni stepped up to the plate: their contributions at two rallies in December and January — including $100 in quarters, donated by the 13-year-old son of an alumna — supplied the first $100,000 to start paying down the water bill, allowing the school to reopen this semester. (See pictures of Barack Obama's college years.)

But another $214,000 was due on Feb. 17. Morris Brown's response to this latest deadline seemed almost like an after-school movie. Despite holding rallies, fundraisers and an auction of prints donated by local artists, by the morning of Feb. 17, the school had managed to raise only $60,000. That afternoon, Stanley Pritchett, Morris Brown's interim president, summoned the students to a mandatory meeting in an auditorium. Many feared the worst. (See pictures of the college dorm's evolution.)

"The first thing that comes to mind is, 'O.K., he's going to tell us what time we need to have our things packed,' " says senior Anya Dixon, 28, a music industry major. Luckily, the news was better than expected: Pritchett detailed an emergency backup plan, explaining that if the water stopped flowing, the school would suspend classes and arrange alternative housing and food services. But it would not close altogether. "A lot of people were relieved to know there was still hope," says Dixon, adding that because the school's tuition is just $7,000 — far below the average of more than $25,000 for private colleges — Morris Brown is "the only chance" for many of its students to attend college. "When we left the meeting, knowing the circumstance that we were in, we went out and rallied on our own," she says. Holding bright orange and white poster boards with slogans like "Save Our School" and "Stop to Write a Check Here," students swarmed the streets outside the school, approaching drivers at every light. Some even boarded city buses, collecting donations in increments as small as 20 cents. Between the students' efforts and a few large donations from faculty and alumni, the school raised nearly $90,000 in just six hours. (See TIME's special report on paying for college.)

Two hours before the 5 p.m. deadline, the city agreed to give Morris Brown another 30 days to come up with the $65,000 balance. Despite the stay of execution, however, the school hasn't yet licked its troubles. Morris Brown has been struggling ever since 2002, when it lost its accreditation in the wake of a financial scandal. Enrollment plummeted from 3,000 to as low as 56, with just 161 students registered this semester. The school faces foreclosure on a building that is home to classrooms and an art gallery. And in a brand-new lawsuit, filed last week, General Electric Capital Corp. is seeking $382,000 plus legal fees for alleged missed payments on office equipment.

Pritchett is unfazed. He plans to raise $3 million a year for the next five years through donations and fees from local church groups and high schools that rent out vacant classrooms or the fallow football stadium in the off-season. Two band camps have already signed on to use the campus this summer. A change in Georgia law last year approved state financial aid for students at schools that, like Morris Brown, are on the road to reaccreditation; it's one reason Pritchett has set an enrollment goal of 1,000 students in 2014, which would translate to a significant tuition revenue increase. Whether similar fudging will allow the school to benefit from the stimulus bill is still unclear, but Pritchett says the economic climate has something of a silver lining. "From the brink of disaster," he says, "you have hope."

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