Students Weigh In On Lon Morris' Value, Struggles
By KELLY GOOCH
"Heartbreaking" is how Josh White described financial struggles at Lon Morris College that led to reorganization efforts, employee furloughs and most recently filing for bankruptcy.
The 20-year-old, who graduated from The Brook Hill School, was looking to play soccer in college and tried out for Lon Morris, where he knew the coach. Everything went well, and he ended up with a scholarship.
At the time, he also looked at East Texas Baptist University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University, but Lon Morris ended up being the best choice.
"It seemed like the perfect storm. It was close to home, and the pricing worked out for a scholarship," he said.
White played soccer for three semesters before transferring this spring to The University of Texas at Tyler.
Students, such as White, have faced uncertainty amid the school's financial struggles, and watched their teachers work without pay. However, the school's chief restructuring officer, Dawn Ragan, said students receive two years of higher education, which provide a foundation for those who want to pursue advanced degrees and plan to go on to more extended study.
"The College is returning to its roots, with a limited enrollment and academic focus, to provide more personal opportunities and a well-rounded learning experience that prepares students academically, socially and spiritually," Ms. Ragan wrote in an email. "Lon Morris endeavors to provide an education with heart and personality, and a foundation for growth. Students at Lon Morris foster friendships that will last a lifetime. We have extremely devoted faculty & staff, and a local community that supports the college like an extended family, even in the midst of our recent financial struggles. We invite new and returning students to be part of that community, and part of the revitalized legacy of Lon Morris."
Students such as White, who studied history, have seen the impact of Lon Morris firsthand.
White said Lon Morris was great socially because it was small and he got to know a lot of people well, especially the soccer team. He also commended his teachers, calling them great instructors.
He said he didn't see a lot of warning signs in regard to the college's situation this past fall, but some teachers shared with students that they weren't being paid.
They "still taught anyway and went to work," White said. "It's just I'm kind of bummed out (about the college's situation). It still kind of hits because you know those instructors are so good. ... You don't know how to prepare for those things."
He said some of his instructors got new jobs while others are still looking.
Although he's at UT Tyler now, he said he hasn't felt any difference in the quality of his education, other than bigger class size.
"The educational experience was a little different at Lon Morris -- a lot more personal -- but I don't think the educational quality is different," White said. "I felt prepared (by Lon Morris). I felt good. There was no lack of preparation. That's what made (the school's situation) more heartbreaking.
"I felt when teachers weren't getting paid, I knew things were (wavering)."
For students with scholarships like him, that was scary because they worried about the future, he said. Even so, he said his educational path has not changed because of it.
Sophomore Derrick Ferguson echoed White, saying he believes Lon Morris has good hands-on teachers who "help students out a lot" as well as good counselors who put students in the classes they need. But he has no prediction on the school's future.
Sophomore Thedford Rhodes, who was slated to graduate this summer, has said his experience as a college student was not what he thought it would be and his classes have been OK. Although he didn't think the school would make it through, he has said he wants the school's financial situation to change.
"I hope they fix it. That's what I hope," Rhodes said in May.
Sophomore Aaron Kervin was sitting down to eat in Tyler in May when he heard rumors and called his teacher, who confirmed actions the school had taken with employees.
"My stomach dropped. I was supposed to work on the oil rigs and stuff like that at the end of June because I was going to graduate (after Summer I), and I can't even do that. Everything's set off a month," he said in May.
The Jasper area native planned to take his remaining math course at Angelina College during Summer II and was deciding whether he would move back with his parents temporarily.
But Ms. Ragan said Lon Morris recently took measures at the conclusion of the spring semester to help minimize the impact for students like Kervin. Summer classroom enrollment was nominal, she wrote in an email, and the college continued to offer online classes for students who needed to complete an hours requirement.
Lon Morris will still provide funded scholarships, those for which it was given grants, gifts and endowments, Ms. Ragan said in an email. Most students are eligible for significant financial aid, often in excess of tuition costs, she said.
Lon Morris has bled millions of dollars since at least the 2007-08 school year.
The school's financial problems led to delayed paychecks for employees and resulted in the furloughs of more than 100 employees and the resignation of President Dr. Miles McCall.
It is now seeking an alliance with another educational institution and eliminated its athletic programs as part of efforts to reorganize, remain viable and emerge from financial difficulties.
The institution filed a voluntary chapter 11 bankruptcy petition on Monday -- a day before a scheduled foreclosure proceeding on dormitories, according to a statement from Lon Morris.
Its primary funding is now a $750,000 debt loan, which it will use for interim funding of operations and capital needs, including current payroll, Ms. Ragan said.
She said she wants students to know that the school is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award the associate degree, and maintains university-level academic standards. She also noted that the college is approved by the University Senate of the United Methodist Church and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
She said the college is working on fall academic programs and expects to have a plan in another week