Lincoln College closes after 157 years, blaming
COVID-19 and cyberattack disruptions
The closure of Lincoln College is a shocking urnaround for a small Illinois college that
welcomes first-generation students and qualifies
as a predominantly Black institution.
The 1918 influenza pandemic couldn't bring Lincoln College down. Neither could the Great Depression or World War II. It survived a major fire and economic hardships. But the college is closing for good on Friday — the victim of two modern blights: the COVID-19 pandemic and a cyberattack.
It's a shocking turnaround for the small private Illinois school that has welcomed thousands of first-generation college students and as a predominantly Black institution, or PBI.
"Lincoln College has been serving students from across the globe for more than 157 years," college President David Gerlach said in a statement on the . "The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense."
Students, alumni and staff are mourning the decision
"It's painful to the faculty, certainly to the students, to the alumni, to the city of Lincoln and to Logan County," Harris said. "I'm particularly pained by it because ... for a lot of students, particularly the Black students, are the first in their family to go to college. I'm proud for them ... but for those students who only have one more semester — wow, that's painful."
The decision to close was announced in late March, when Gerlach told students the college would cease to operate after the end of the spring term. Current and former students said they felt blindsided by the school that had offered them opportunity and a safe haven from uncertain circumstances.
"That whole campus just can't go to waste. It's too necessary," recent graduate Arielle Williams, a Chicago native who was president of Lincoln's Black Student Union, in April. "I don't think people are understanding what this is going to do to a generation of students."
Lincoln was on an upswing. Then COVID-19 and a cyberattack struck
Lincoln College saw record enrollment in the fall of 2019, filling its dormitories. But the pandemic hit months later, disrupting campus life and limiting the school's ability to raise money and recruit new students. COVID-19 forced the school to lay out cash for new technology and safety measures, at a time when it saw a significant drop in enrollment, as students paused their college careers.
Then, in December 2021, a ransomware attack struck that "thwarted admissions activities and hindered access to all institutional data," the college said.
The cyberattack blockedcrucial data the college uses to project its academic and economic future. When it finally regained access to its computer systems in March, the news was dire: Fall enrollment of around 630 full-time students wouldn't be nearly enough to bolster its accounts. It would take a "transformational donation or partnership" for the school to continue to exist into the summer, it said.
The ransomware attack originated in Iran, Gerlach has said. The school paid less than $100,000 to restore its systems, he told the . But the college would need far more money — as much as $53 million, Gerlach said in an — to guarantee its long-term survival.
Cyberattacks repeatedly target U.S. schools
At least 14 U.S. colleges or universities and nine school districts have been hit by ransomware demands so far in 2022, according to Brett Callow, a threat analyst at Emsisoft, a cybersecurity company based in New Zealand. Data was stolen in 13 of the 23 cases.
Callow says the hackers customize their ransom demands to each victim.
"The amount the attackers ask for varies enormously depending on the organization they've hit," Callow said. "They've typically had access to the organization's financials — they'll know whether it cover carries cyber insurance, for example, and what the coverage limits are."
In each of the past two years, ransomware has hit more than 80 education organizations, Callow told NPR. In 2021, that included 62 school districts and 26 colleges and universities.
When asked why the education sector seems particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks, Callow says many school districts and colleges are facing such security challenges for the first time.
"School districts are basically having to design their own security networks, and you see these very small districts with barely any IT experience" trying to strategize — and pay for — measures such as quarterly penetration testing and 24/7 network monitoring.
A small town loses a local institution
In the past decade, Lincoln from being a junior college to return to its origins as a four-year institution. It has played a prominent role in its local community, fielding sports teams and operating student-run radio and TV outlets. But a to help the school fell far short of its $20 million goal.
With its closing imminent, Lincoln College has devoted its website to answering the many questions its students, alumni and staff now find themselves facing. It's also working to provide transcripts and transfer information, to help them document the work they put in at the school.
Change without sacrifice is an illusion.