Alliance University, a 140-year-old Christian & Missionary Alliance (CMA) school in New York City, will close on August 31 after years of financial struggles.
Known for much of its history as Nyack College, Alliance is the latest casualty in the financial crisis in Christian higher education . At least 18 Christian colleges have closed since the pandemic. But Alliance is also unique among US evangelical schools as one of the most ethnically diverse, with a student population that this year was 34 percent Latino, 30 percent Black, 11 percent international, and 9 percent Asian.
The parent denomination of the school, the CMA, began in New York City in 1880, and Alliance was founded not long after as an educational institution for missionaries and those in ministry. Alliance graduates like pastor A. R. Bernard lead many New York churches.
The CMA provided significant financial support to the school when it was in trouble in recent years. It is considering continuing the programs of Alliance Theological Seminary, which is part of the university.
The school’s board voted on Thursday night to shut down Alliance University’s operations, and school leadership informed staff, faculty, and students on Friday and began layoffs. Alumni, even knowing the financial straits of the school, used the same word over and over in interviews: “shock.”
“This is very sad,” said Chris Smith, who graduated in 2010, worked on staff at the school in various capacities, and served on the school’s alumni board. “The texts, calls, FaceTimes, DMs [direct messages] I’m getting is a lot.”
“They had something so special,” said alumna Heather Beers-Dimitriadis. “That school changed my life in ways I could have never imagined.”
With an announcement like this coming during the summer, communication about the closure happened by email and Zoom. The school had to send a letter to current students, and then to 683 students who had been accepted for the fall.
Alliance provost David Turk said 106 students are planning to graduate by the end of August, and he thinks that number will grow with students completing courses over the summer. He is planning a Zoom call with all the students after the July 4 holiday. Alliance is looking into holding a final graduation ceremony in August that could also be a chance for the Alliance community to grieve and worship together.
“The students deserve a ceremony,” said Turk. “We need some sort of closure as a community, all dressed up in gowns.”
Morgan Morrison had a year left in her master’s in mental health counseling at Alliance. She had heard that the school was dealing with financial problems, but the news on Friday caught her by surprise.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty amongst my classmates,” she said. She’s trying to figure out what credit hours will transfer elsewhere, and where she might go to finish her degree. Two months is a short time for students to find and enter a new program.
President Rajan Mathews, who came to the school in 2021, said in an email to CT that his heart “aches” for the faculty, staff, and students, as well as “the city and our churches and institutions that are now denied our qualified and motivated students.”
“As a Christian, I ultimately look for reason and purpose through the faith that is centered on our Lord Jesus the Christ,” he said. “He does all things well. In that is my ultimate hope and stay through all this.”
The decision to close came on the heels of the school receiving a notice on Monday that it was losing its accreditation. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) cited the school’s finances as the main reason for the action. The removal of accreditation meant Alliance could not accept incoming students and had to instruct returning students about transferring schools.
“The last week has just been an up and down of total despair and then looking for different ways to rescue things, then facing up to the reality of what is and what will be,” Turk said.
Turk was a student at the school in the early 1970s and has been on staff for 45 years and provost for 21 years. This week, as he navigated angry Facebook comments from alumni, he thought through all the people and institutions he could blame for the closure of the school. But he came to the conclusion of accepting that “this is what is happening in higher education across the country.”
Alliance’s auditors had warned that the school was in danger as a “going concern” in previous years. For years, the school operated with massive deficits—including a $10 million deficit in 2019. Enrollment had been declining for years, but the pandemic worsened the situation. Mathews, a telecom executive, took over as president in 2021, bringing a business mind to a Christian school deep in debt.
Mathews saw an improving outlook with enrollment and fundraising up this past year. But MSCHE surprised Alliance leadership with placing it on “show cause” status this spring, meaning that Alliance had to prove why its accreditation should not be revoked.
Alliance had a hearing before the accreditors on June 21 but did not convince them of the school’s financial hopefulness.
“All we were asking for was a bit more time to prove our financial case,” said Mathews.
Several education experts CT interviewed said that accreditors now are quicker to pull accreditation for schools in financial trouble, to keep students from enrolling in failing institutions.
Some Alliance alumni said the problems were long-term and embedded.
“Years of bad decisions,” Smith said. He saw a “lack of innovation” from the board and leadership prior to Mathews. “Alumni weren’t a priority for those in leadership.”
Beers-Dimitriadis, who served on the alumni board also and is the daughter of an alum, said the school did little fundraising among alumni and pursued outside “big-fish” donors instead. She said the alumni board was dissolved entirely in 2019.
Whatever the long-term problems that led to this moment, the school has a 140-year legacy of ministry in New York and around the world.
In an address at Mathews’s inauguration, Anne Snyder, an Alliance board member and the editor in chief of Comment Magazine, remembered attending the school’s commencement in 2015.
“A 79-year-old grandmother ascended the stage and collected her diploma for the first time, followed by a Chinese woman in a wheelchair, followed a single mother, followed by an ex-offender. Here was a Christianity I could believe. Here were the Beatitudes unspoiled and put into practice,” she said. “Instead of expressing fear that a great Christian heritage was losing ground, as I was hearing in other evangelical and Catholic circles back in 2015, there was compassion in their testimonies, the scent of hope anchored in humility and fervent faith.”
Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, ticked through a list of Alliance’s major achievements as an institution: a degree program at Fishkill Correctional Facility (which Turk said Houghton University in Houghton, New York, would likely take over as a teach-out partner), a “vibrant arts program” with a gospel choir, and a path for older adults to earn their degrees. She noted that Alliance had trained hundreds of church leaders in New York and “seeded hundreds of missionaries and educators around the globe.”
“The legacy of Alliance is being the affordable and accessible Christian college opportunity for the five boroughs of New York, as well as for students from around the country who wanted to participate in multiethnic and multicultural experience,” Hoogstra told CT.
In its long history, Alliance enrolled students who were refugees from the Vietnam War, and in 2021 it enrolled and covered tuition for refugees from Afghanistan. The denomination has been closely involved with immigrant churches and refugee resettlement, and many of the professors at the school were immigrants themselves. When the Afghan refugees arrived in New York to start classes, professors who were immigrants from Poland and Hong Kong met them with coats and bedding.
“I think that [Alliance] fulfilled the mission laid out by its founder,” said Turk, of serving the community through various mercy ministries. Turk counted last year that Alliance students, through programs where they are interns or doing other work, have connections to more than a thousand social services in the New York metro area, from hospitals to public schools. “We truly served the community of New York.”
The CMA has other denominational schools, like Toccoa Falls College in Georgia and Simpson University in California.
The King’s College, also in lower Manhattan near Alliance’s campus, is the only other CCCU school in New York City and is also facing the threat of imminent closure because of a financial crisis.
King’s also lost its accreditation at the beginning of June, but it is appealing the decision and has said it is in talks with another Christian college about a potential partnership. The removal of accreditation means that it cannot accept incoming students, which worsens its outlook.
Turk said for the past month or two he has been in touch with The King’s College’s board and interim president about a merger or collaboration of some kind, a conversation that is still ongoing because Alliance retains its state education charter despite shuttering its programs.
“King’s has had this wonderful history of large donors which Alliance University has never had,” he said. “But Alliance University has a charter from the state of New York, which we don’t lose. We also have program approvals for many graduate programs and professional programs that King’s does not have. It would make sense to bring both together.”
Students, meanwhile, are moving on. Accreditors have detailed procedures for when a school closes, including requiring the school to help students transfer to other programs if they wish and make sure records are preserved.
Alliance has teach-out agreements with schools including Asbury Theological Seminary, Manhattan Community College, Eastern University, Fordham University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Houghton University, and Messiah College, among others. Students can transfer to these schools with all of their Alliance credits to finish their degrees.
“I guess the next steps for us all are just to make the space to grieve,” said Morrison, the master’s student. “God will provide for sure!”