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Lincoln College in central Illinois to close Friday after last-minute hunt for wealthy ‘angel donor’ falls short – Chicago Tribune

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Blake Wiebe packed up his room at Lincoln College more than a week ago, but knowing he’ll never return means the sadness is still fresh.

“Lincoln felt like a home to me,” Weibe, a junior-to-be, said by phone from his hometown of El Dorado, Kansas. “In such a short time I made a lot of good friends. To see everyone separated, it’s hard. It really is.”

The college named after America’s legendary president is closing Friday, about six weeks after a shocking announcement that lower-than-anticipated enrollment would cause the 157-year-old predominantly Black institution in central Illinois to shut down without a $50 million infusion.

Enrollment had already been trending downward, but a ransomware attack that struck in December knocked out the college’s computer system and obscured how dire the picture had become, President David Gerlach told the Tribune last month.

Service was restored after the college paid a ransom Gerlach said was less than six figures. That’s when the college figured out that instead of the modest increase administrators were counting on, enrollment would remain flat. That would not permit the college to keep going financially, Gerlach said.

Gerlach did not respond to the Tribune’s requests for comment Thursday. In an internal email sent in late April, he said he would not be giving any more interviews and told college employees to remain silent as well.

Students and staff members rallied to try to raise enough money to keep the school going, setting up a GoFundMe page, soliciting foundations and hunting for a wealthy “angel donor.” But in the end, it was too much to raise in too short of a time.

Many students have already arranged to transfer to other schools. Weibe, a swimmer, said he will join the team at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky, a conference rival.

“Our coach is good friends with (Cumberlands’ coach),” he said. “That’s how I learned about the school.”

Others are still weighing their options. Alexa Redd, a Lincoln, Illinois, native who just finished her first year at the college, said the Lincoln College staff helped her get accepted into several schools, and that she’ll make up her mind after campus visits this summer.

Aside from the personal disruption, she worried for her hometown of 13,500. Lincoln College is one of Lincoln’s largest employers, and the students it attracted from other parts of the state, country and world gave the town a diversity it will now lose, she said.

“Lincoln College is the one thing people had that wasn’t Lincoln-ized,” she said. “Now that it’s gone, the whole town is not going where it needs to go.”

The city recently saw another local college, Lincoln Christian University, announce plans to sell much of its campus to a church. But Mayor Tracy Welch said it’s too soon to tell how the losses will affect his town.

“I’m optimistic that those who were employed will be able to find other jobs,” he said. “The one thing we can’t replace is the student population and their patronizing of our local businesses, especially those that are closer to the college. We realize there’s going to be some impact; we can’t (estimate) the magnitude of that at this time.”

Likewise, Welch said he knew of no firm plans for what will become of Lincoln College’s campus, though Gerlach earlier told the Tribune he hoped it would house another educational institution.

Lincoln joins 27 other Illinois colleges, branch campuses and professional schools that have closed in recent years, a reflection of what experts say is a rethinking of the financial benefits offered by schools that are not elite institutions.

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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