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Lincoln College closes after 157 years, blaming COVID-19 and cyberattack disruptions

The closure of Lincoln College is a shocking turnaround for a small Illinois college that welcomes first-generation students and qualifies as a predominantly Black institution.
© Google Earth 2022
The closure of Lincoln College is a shocking turnaround 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 qualified for federal recognition 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 school's website. "The loss of history, careers, and a community of students and alumni is immense."

Students, alumni and staff are mourning the decision

"There were tears" when the college's board of trustees voted to shutter the institution, trustee Kathryn Harris told member station WGLT of Illinois State University.

"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, told WGLT 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 blocked crucial 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 Chicago Tribune. But the college would need far more money — as much as $53 million, Gerlach said in an interview with WGLT — 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.

The prevalent threat has made insurance itself into a burden: a public school district in Bloomington, some 30 miles northeast of Lincoln, recently saw its cyber-insurance price skyrocket from $6,661 to $22,229.

A small town loses a local institution

Lincoln College was chartered in 1865 and named for Abraham Lincoln. It's located in the small town of Lincoln, with a population of around 13,300, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In the past decade, Lincoln transitioned 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 fundraising campaign 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.

At its final commencement ceremony last week, Lincoln conferred associate's, bachelor's, or master's degrees on 235 students.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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