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Wells College looks to Manhattanville University to pick up students after abrupt closure

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Facebook: Wells College, Manhattanville University

Another New York college has announced its closure, with just a few days’ notice. Wells College, in Aurora, says it will shutter its doors at the end of the semester, following years of financial challenges. As students look to find new schooling come fall, the college has tapped a Westchester County university as its preferred teach-out facility.

When freshmen John and Joe Bangel woke up Monday morning, they expected to start getting ready for finals — there’s only a couple weeks left in the semester. But instead, the brothers from Candor, New York are preparing to look at schools all over again. John says they awoke to an email informing them that Wells was closing for good.

“I didn’t believe it. And then I asked a couple of my friends and they said, ‘Yeah, it’s true.’ I actually started crying, because I was prepared to be at Wells for four years, and it was pretty sad knowing that I wasn’t going to be there," he recalls. "After that, I was already prepared to look towards the future. So that’s where I’m pretty focused on right now.”

Wells, whose Finger Lakes campus has roughly 350 students, did not return a request for comment. In their letterannouncing the decision, President Jonathan Gibralter and Board Chair Marie Carroll say the board has spent years trying to raise revenue and find other solutions to avoid closure, but that revenues “are not projected to be sufficient for Wells’ long-term financial stability.”

As recently as April 19, the college was promoting itself to prospective students on Instagram, urging them to book tours of the campus and attend its “accepted students day.”

In its announcement Monday, the college named Manhattanville University in Purchase as its preferred teach-out facility. Manhattanville is a four-hour drive from Wells, just 30 minutes outside New York City, and has more than 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students — but President Frank Sánchez says he feels the two schools have similar enough backgrounds, campuses, and demographics to make for a smooth transition.

"I think there's a lot of, as you can imagine, for students and families, a lot of anxiety, maybe some uncertainty, some worry," says Sanchez. "As the preferred teach-out partner, our goal is to reduce that anxiety."

Sánchez says any Wells students who come to Purchase will keep their current tuition rate (which is lower than Manhattanville’s), as well as any scholarships. Manhattanville is dedicating a residence hall to keep Wells students together next year, and creating an advisory board of Wells students to get their feedback during the transition.

The Bangels say they’re not sure where they’re going just yet. John says they like the small-town feel of Aurora — that’s why they applied to Wells — but now that they’ve tried it, they’re open to a larger school. Both brothers also play for Wells' basketball and golf teams, and like many of their teammates, they're trying to find a campus where they can continue playing the sports they love. But that might be the hardest part.

“There are a good amount of teams that have their recruits already set and the rosters already full," says Bangel. "It’s early, but right now, trying to find a basketball team for some people — trying to find a team that wants them, and also wants their friends, the group — is almost impossible.”

Wells is latest in a string of small private colleges to close up shop in recent years. The College of Saint Rose in Albany is closing in June, and Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, is shuttering at the end of May. Two years ago, when the nearly 200-year-old Cazenovia College announced its closure, Wells was listed as a teach-out facility for students.

State Assemblymember Pat Fahy, a Democrat from the 109th District, chairs the Committee on Higher Education. She says a lot of campuses still haven’t recouped the revenue they lost when the COVID-19 pandemic sent students home or deterred them from applying in the first place. Couple that with inflation and a general decline in enrollment, and some campuses simply can’t stay afloat.

"We are seeing a struggle with enrollments across the country and our small, independent colleges have really been hit — as well as our small SUNYs and CUNYs. We had cutbacks at Fredonia, recently, and Clinton Community College, and more," she explains.

Sánchez says Manhattanville is on an upswing. He says enrollment rose 5 percent in the fall, and the campus recently rebranded as a university.

Long-term, Sánchez says Wells and Manhattanville are exploring a legacy agreement to incorporate the Wells’ name somewhere on the Manhattanville campus.

“They're now a part of our history, as we are a part of theirs," he adds.

In addition to Manhattanville, Wells says has developed teach-out agreements with Mercy University, Excelsior University, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Keuka College, Le Moyne College, and SUNY Brockport.

In a way, for the Bangels it’s like senior year of high school all over again — everyone’s getting ready to move, and they don’t know if they’re going to stick with their friends in the fall. But Joe says they will always have the memories.

“We’re gonna get through this together. It’s not just one or two people, it’s everyone — including professors and staff and faculty and all of us. But we’re tough people, and I would say don’t count us out," he notes. "We’re always gonna be Wellsians and we’re always gonna be a Wells family no matter where we are.”

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."