CLINTON — News that the Ashford University Clinton campus will close at the end of the 2016 spring semester came as a shock to community leaders, including the college's previous owner.
The Sisters of St. Francis owned and operated Mount St. Clare College and then The Franciscan University of the Prairies for about 85 years before the private, for-profit Bridgeport Education bought it in 2005 and renamed it Ashford University.
“We’re sad about it because of our history,” Sister Anne Martin Phelan, president of the Sisters of St. Francis, said Thursday after having heard the news earlier in the day. “At the same time we’re grateful to Ashford for the 10 years they’ve been successful in Clinton. We just hope the best for them and for the community here in Clinton.”
The school's online education center will continue in its current location and will not be affected by the closure, according to a news release posted on the Ashford website.
The campus is located at 400 N. Bluff Blvd.
"Ashford's Clinton campus has been unable to resolve its significant and ongoing enrollment shortfall, a trend that is especially troubling in today's highly competitive environment," Gregory Geoffroy, chair of Ashford University's board of directors, said the news release.
"This decision was thoughtfully and carefully considered, and we are deeply saddened to close a campus that is so rich in history and committed to providing its students with a quality academic experience," Geoffroy added.
Ashford has initiated a one-year "teach-out plan" for the 1 percent of the students who attend classes in Clinton. The university's online students will not be affected by the closure.
Remaining open for two more semesters will allow the nearly 35 percent of existing campus students who are on track to complete their degrees the opportunity to attend the May 2016 commencement in Clinton, according to the release.
The school will work with other on-campus students on their options, either transitioning to another school or to the online courses.
The news release indicates that 60 percent of returning campus students are pursuing a degree program that also is available online at Ashford.
Ashford will be seeking transfer agreements with nearby colleges and universities for those students who decide to transfer.
Moving forward, the university will focus on its online efforts, the release said.
Nathan Sondgeroth, president and CEO of the Clinton Area Chamber of Commerce, said it is sad that the university plans to shutter the campus.
"You hate to lose any employer, you hate to lose any business, but now that we know what is happening we can rally together as a community and see what's next," Sondgeroth said
"We still have yet to fully assess the situation," he added. "We'll be attending the informational meetings the school will hold and we'll also see what Ashford's officials are thinking of doing with the campus."
The good news, Sondgeroth said, "is that we have a year to figure it out and make some good strategic choices. That and the fact that Ashford will continue to invest in its online courses here in Clinton."
"We will always be proud of our campus and its many student, faculty and staff accomplishments," Ashford University president Richard Pattenaude said in the release.
"Ashford has opened the door to a college education to tens of thousands of previously under-served Americans, and that is what we intend to continue doing," he said.
In the city of about 27,000 people, Ashford was one of Clinton's larger employers.
“It will have a huge economic impact, not only for the loss of employees but the taxes associated with a private college,” Clinton Alderwoman Julie Allesee, 1st Ward, said.
Allesee first heard the news from media reports Thursday afternoon, though she was not as surprised given what she believed to be declining enrollment.
“Up until last year or so I felt it was very stable,” Allesee said. “I had the general sense the campus students were slower to enroll.”
Ashford helped put Clinton on the map. “It’s certainly awakened people to the fact Clinton, Iowa, exists,” Allesee said. “Graduations brought people from every state and multiple countries.”
Allesee said she feels bad for the faculty. “They had some really good teachers there,” she said. “That’s a real loss.”
Members of the faculty included some who taught there when the campus was owned by the Sisters of St. Francis.
“Quite a few faculty,” Phelan said. “It was important to the Clinton community because of the employees and students. That’s why it is a loss to the community for sure.”
The Sisters of St. Francis started Mount St. Clare College in 1918 and changed its name to The Franciscan University of the Prairies in 2002.
Phelan said that under the sisters, the college had an enrollment in the hundreds and a “small, undergraduate program.”
After Bridgeport bought the college, the new owner had increased enrollment in six years to about 1,000, which was about 700 more than in 2005, according to reports at the time.
The Sisters of St. Francis have no interest in operating the college again.
“We couldn’t,” Phelan said. “We don’t have the personnel for that.”