Midland University is going for it.
The Fremont, Neb., school is poised to buy the Dana College campus in Blair, a move that would give Midland two campuses near the Omaha area and allow it to nearly double its student enrollment in the coming decade.
The agreement is close to being finalized, according to sources connected to both Midland and the now-defunct Dana. The framework of a deal could be announced as soon as this week, if the sale price and pending legal issues are resolved.
Midland leaders want to open the Blair campus by August 2015, as long as the purchase and accreditation go as planned, according to information Midland leaders have given to several donors and business leaders in Fremont and Blair.
“The funding is secured to buy the Dana campus,” said one such donor, though the school still needs to raise money to renovate and repair campus buildings.
“My sense is this is all but a done deal,” said the donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Midland's expansion to a second campus in Blair would mark the latest aggressive move by the school, which nearly went bust four years ago before the 2009 hiring of Ben Sasse, now 41 and still one of the nation's youngest college presidents.
For Blair, it would mean that college students would continue to roam the 151 acres of campus buildings and green space that was Dana College until it closed in 2010.
And for Omaha high school students — particularly those in west Omaha — Midland's acquisition of a second campus is the latest signal that Nebraska colleges and universities are lusting after them.
Midland has ramped up recruiting efforts in urban and suburban Omaha, even as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a grab-bag of eastern Nebraska private schools and for-profit universities have also made serious plays for the high school graduates in Nebraska's fasting growing area.
A second campus would alleviate Midland's space concern in Fremont — its current campus is only 25 landlocked acres — and allow more room and more student housing for more potential Omaha students.
Midland leaders and board members have been quietly planning the purchase for months, first securing millions in donated money needed to buy the Dana campus. In the past few weeks, Sasse and Kari Ridder, the school's development director, have begun meeting with former Dana boosters and donors, presenting the idea and beginning to line up more money needed to fix up the campus buildings.
Sasse declined comment for this story.
The sticker price for the Dana purchase is $5.9 million, though the potential sale price is unclear.
Raising millions of dollars to buy a campus is just the latest big move Sasse has made since taking over: Midland has changed its name — it was long Midland Lutheran College — the majors it offers, how it teaches those majors, the school colors, even its mascot.
The early returns are promising: Midland is already growing at a faster clip than any other school in the state, in part because most of Dana's students migrated to Midland when Dana closed its doors.
Now Midland will attempt to grow to nearly 2,000 students, according to an informational sheet Sasse and Ridder have handed out to Fremont and Blair business leaders.
There is a deep irony buried beneath this news.
The Midland purchase would finally bring together Midland and Dana, two private colleges founded by Lutherans and situated practically next door to one another. Those schools long resisted calls to merge, calls that came from the church's leadership as well as influential donors such as Omaha businessman Howard Hawks.
And now they appear ready to do just that, but only after Dana went bankrupt and Midland nearly did.
“It is ironic,” says a source connected to both schools. “What I've been saying to people (in Blair) is that Midland is the closest thing to Dana College that exists in Nebraska now.”
And there is a fascinating postscript, as well: Midland might not be finished expanding.
The Fremont school has long been rumored to be looking to build a west Omaha campus. According to one source close to Midland, the school's leaders and board will still consider doing just that after they open the Blair campus.
“We may get to three campuses instead of two,” he said. “This just changes the timing.”
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