CHESTER — A student-led fund drive netted $65,000 in donations and pledges for the "Save Chester College" campaign in just five days.
Faculty, meanwhile, identified more than $382,000 in potential savings, including pay and benefit cuts, for trustees in a three-hour meeting Monday.
Then students and faculty each gave a little more: their hearts and souls, too.
"The student body wants to be clear: We will do whatever it takes," students told trustees in a letter appealing to them to keep the college open.
"Things are definitely improving," student leader Rebecca MacDonald said.
But the survival of the college remains in doubt, a numbers game around enrollment and finances, with trustees expected to make a decision by the middle of the month.
"I don't think any of us have our heads stuck in the sand," Dean of Students Byron Petrakis said. "We're trying to make our story known."
Chester College of New England, founded in 1965, holds commencement May 12.
The small arts college, with an enrollment of 144, projects a deficit of more than $500,000 and needs to boost enrollment.
President Robert Baines, a former mayor of Manchester, acknowledged last week at a campus meeting that trustees would decide as soon as this month whether to close.
Two weeks, $500,000 to raise to save school
Faculty and students know that leaves them less than two weeks to come up with at least $500,000 to keep the college alive.
It's not just about closing the financing gap. Officials also want to assure incoming students the program is sustainable and they will be able to complete degree work at the college.
Laura Ives, vice president for academic affairs and student services, maintains this isn't mission impossible.
"We have to raise at least $500,000. We just raised $65,000 in five days," she said. "What we're saying to trustees is let us continue through to next year, let us continue to fund raise, there is plenty of time in the next academic year."
Projected student enrollments for the upcoming year are as good as they ever have been at this point, Ives said.
"This is a one-time problem," she said of the financial trouble.
Baines said he has been in the education field all his life and has seen nothing to rival the commitment of students and sacrifice of faculty.
"It's inspiring," he said. "They're incredible people."
Students and faculty have lamented that the president and trustees did not let them know sooner how serious was the school's plight.
Baines said the fiscal challenges have been ongoing. Chester has put more than $1 million into facilities in recent years and $500,000 into nationwide marketing to lure students the past couple of years, he said.
The school has a mortgage of $2.3 million on the property, Baines said.
The economic downturn hurt.
"The economy had a dramatic impact on us," Baines said.
Thomas Horgan, the president of the New Hampshire College and University Council, confirms as much.
"Running a small private college is a real challenge in this economy," Horgan said.
They depend on enrollments and tuition, especially in a state that lets municipalities tax private colleges and doesn't offer scholarship aid, Horgan said.
"It really comes down to finances," he said. "Do you have the assets to meet your financial obligations?"
Horgan could not recall an instance where a New Hampshire college has found itself in this situation and survived.
"Unfortunately, I don't know of a successful case," Horgan said.
Closure requires answers for students
Chester College has explored partnerships with as many as eight institutions. An out-of-state college backed off after concluding a $10 million investment was needed to make it viable.
The most serious talks of late are with Colby Sawyer College, though trustees of the two colleges have yet to act on any kind of agreement, Baines said.
At the meeting with trustees Monday, the faculty proposed closing the smaller of two dormitories, pay and benefit concessions, and voluntary leaves among other savings.
There's a reason, Petrakis said.
"We want to be here," he said. "Our faculty is given an opportunity to work at the college, yes, but also to shape that college and make it something unique. That's priceless."
If Chester College is unable to survive, it will have to have a plan, one subject to scrutiny by the state and an accrediting agency, that will enable rising seniors to complete studies somewhere else and undergraduates to transfer.
Student transcripts would be entrusted to the state Higher Education Commission.
The college also would have to account for an endowment of $3 million and divest real estate valued at nearly $5 million.
When Notre Dame College of Manchester closed a decade ago, seniors finished up at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, but were awarded Notre Dame diplomas, Horgan recalled.
The campus community hopes it doesn't get that far for Chester College.
Students, faculty try every avenue
Yesterday, students posted fliers in Chester and Derry promoting a silent auction, set for 7 p.m. Saturday in Wadleigh Library, where faculty and student works of art will go up for bid.
"Students are coming forward to donate their own art work," student Anna Johnson said.
Featured guests are authors Steve Almond and William Giraldi.
Services such as landscaping and genealogy research also are offered.
Students also plan to meet with selectmen tomorrow at 7 p.m. The meeting will air on cable access Channel 20, the college said.
Petrakis sees Chester College as not just a school, but more of a home for artistic students who have overcome challenges to find a place and their voice in the world.
"I'd hate to see those voices stilled," Petrakis said.
The students know.
As they told trustees: "Should Chester College overcome this adversity, we hope to come out stronger for it and let New Hampshire know how passionate we are, and how amazing this school really is."
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Want to help?
What: Save Chester College
How: Donate or attend silent auction and buy artwork
When: Saturday, 7 p.m., Wadleigh Library
Tickets: Visit savechestercollege.eventbrite.com for $20 or $40 at the door.
Donations: Visit chestercollege.edu.