Midtown Raleigh News

Louisburg College celebrates 225 years

After seven years of working in the private sector, David Safran hit a career wall – with just a high school diploma, there was little room for advancement.

But the solution wasn’t as simple as applying to the closest college. With dyslexia, attention deficit disorder and working memory disorder, Safran knew he’d need extra assistance.

Louisburg College was the only school he found with a center for students with learning disorders, so he decided the hour commute was worth it. He graduated summa cum laude in May, the only 4.0 in his class.

“It provided me a strong foundation for the future,” Safran said. “I needed Louisburg.”

Louisburg College specializes in giving students second chances, a practice learned from experience – in its 225-year history, the school has had plenty of second chances of its own.

Founded before George Washington was president, converted into a hospital during the Civil War and nearly capsizing twice – once during the Great Depression and once during the recent recession – the school has overcome all obstacles to celebrate its milestone anniversary this year as the oldest two-year residential college in the nation.

“We believe this is a part of the higher education system that should not become extinct,” President Mark LaBranche said. “It’s a matter of faith, too – we feel called to continue this.”

History back to the 1700s

The school grew from the Franklin Male Academy, chartered in 1787, and the Franklin Female Academy, chartered in 1813. That charter was replaced in 1855 and renamed Louisburg Female College, with its main building – still standing and in use – constructed in 1857. General William Sherman’s troops commandeered the college to use as a military infirmary in 1865.

The Duke family of Durham bought the college for $5,450 in 1891 and donated it to the N.C. Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1907. Since then, the school has become co-educational while maintaining its Methodist affiliation. It offers associate degrees in sciences, business and arts.

Things are on an upswing, LaBranche says. Applications are up 35 percent. The school instituted a waiting list last year for the first time in its history. At its lowest point, the school dropped below 400 students. Now, there are more than 700.

Tough times

Starting in 2006, the college was at risk of losing its accreditation, suffering from low enrollment and nearly buckling under a debt of about $5 million. During a three-year probation, the school cycled through presidents, including one who stayed only nine months, slashed its budget and cut jobs.

Current president Mark LaBranche took over in January 2009, increasing fundraising and putting more money into recruiting. That December, the school stabilized its finances enough to win accreditation through 2016.

The school was in similar straits in 1930, LaBranche said, when the onset of the Great Depression nearly closed the school until the community stepped in to help.

‘A small Chapel Hill’

The school’s two-year focus draws many students who lacked focus in high school and want a fresh start.

A self-proclaimed former C-student, Charles Rucker says Louisburg College is where he learned that he was “actually pretty intelligent.” A Louisburg English professor inspired Rucker to teach English himself for 12 years after he graduated in 1972.

“Louisburg is rich soil,” Rucker said. “It was the backdrop of a 185-year-old campus full of huge oak trees and an atmosphere of community that I found quite reassuring – it had the feel of a small Chapel Hill.”

Other students choose Louisburg because its rural location and stately campus provide a nurturing bridge to a larger institution such as UNC-Chapel Hill or N.C. State University.

The school’s strong athletics draw students like Georgia resident Dillon Powell – though it was the warmth of school faculty that made mom Rosalyn Powell comfortable sending her child seven hours from home, she said.

“It was the way they make you feel about your child being there,” she said. “There are so many things in place to make sure they will be successful.”

Looking ahead

School officials are at the start of a five-year planning process. They want to maintain the school’s current mission while tweaking its tools. For example, they’re considering degrees in specific career areas such as hospitality management, LaBranche said.

“This place is like a phoenix,” he said. “It rises from the ashes.”