Faced with declining enrollments and rising costs, it’s a tough time for the country’s small independent colleges, with the financial squeeze on schools more acute in New England and Vermont.
The latest casualty is Green Mountain College. The Poultney liberal arts college announced this week it would close its doors following the end of the spring semester.
But GMC is not alone.
Both Goddard College in Plainfield and the College of St. Joseph are in jeopardy of closing. Both schools have been placed on accreditation probation by the New England Commission of Higher Education.
Time is running out on the College of St. Joseph. The Rutland four-year college has until April 1 to present new evidence to show it is on sound financial ground to meet the required accreditation standards.
If the school fails to shore up its finances by then, the school will lose its accreditation at the end of August.
CSJ President Jennifer Scott said the accreditation issue is solely financial and not about academic quality.
“Since June we have built a plan that will stabilize the institution and we are working that plan diligently every day and haven’t deviated from the plan,” said Scott, who took over as president in June. “In fact, we are sticking with our plan regardless of this new information from our creditors. We are still working our plan because we are making real and significant progress with our plan.”
Scott said the college has accelerated its efforts in pursuing a partnership with another institution or join a consortium as a way to share resources and save money.
Scott expressed confidence when asked whether the college will be able to meet its April 1 deadline. “That is certainly our expectation,” she said.
She stressed the support the college has received from the community as well as the commitment from the faculty and staff to CSJ’s future.
“So there is no way we are giving up,” Scott said.
She said the college does not have a lot of debt. “The larger concern is the limits to our endowment,” she said.
The school found itself in a financial bind when it depleted most of its $5 million endowment in a failed attempt to obtain certification several years ago for a physician’s assistant program.
The school’s financial predicament has impacted efforts to attract and retain students. Scott said the school has been “very transparent” with existing students and prospective students about the school’s circumstances.
She said the school has “an obligation to be upfront and transparent with students and also help them understand there is risk to coming here and clear about what the risks are and what they are not.”
CSJ has 227 students and just under 100 full- and part-time faculty and staff.
Goddard College was placed on accreditation probation for up to two years in November for failing to meet the requirements on finance and governance.
Goddard President Bernard Bull said the college is working on reducing its operational expenses so expenses align with tuition revenue.
“If we have fewer students, we have to be able to live within our means,” Bull said. “So that’s a significant part of the effort.”
The college is also focused on making sure it has a fully staffed admissions team, he said.
To meet the NECHE governance standards, the college moved to stabilize leadership positions that were vacant or filled on an interim basis and gave the board of trustees greater oversight.
Bull also said the school has been aggressive in its fundraising activities.
“We have a long, proud list of alumni and friends of the college and others who really resonate with our social justice mission and our unique approach to higher education,” he said.
That approach includes no letter grades. Students help create their own course of study. Goddard is also what’s known as a low-residency school, meaning students do the bulk of their studies at home and spend 10 days on campus twice a year.
As a result, Goddard’s student makeup is different than a traditional college.
“The majority of students we serve are not looking for that traditional residential (education),” Bull said. “We have lots of working adults, people with families. We do have people in their twenties as well but they’re looking for something where they don’t live on campus.”
Based on its historical data, Goddard’s budget is based on an annual enrollment of 375 students.
Bull said his goal is to err on the side of caution and budget accordingly.
“My goal is to not just to deal with this immediate situation and navigate the immediate financial concerns but to really set Goddard up so that doesn’t run into these perpetually,” he said.
Asked whether Goddard will survive, Bull said while the school faces “a serious situation” with no guarantees, he remains hopeful.
“I see many ways that not only can we survive but thrive in the future,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether we effectively execute on one or more of those plans.”
Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission on Higher Education, one of the regional accrediting commissions around the country, said the issue for small colleges in particular is demographics.
Unlike many larger colleges and universities which have a more diverse student base and graduate programs, many smaller colleges are dependent on recent high school graduates, Brittingham said.
She said that 18-year-old demographic is decreasing around the country but more so in New England and the Upper Midwest.
“One of the very big challenges after the Great Recession started in 2008, people had fewer babies in general,” she said.
Brittingham said that means in a few years there will be a more severe decline in the college-age population.
She said many students who opt to attend small colleges do so because they are small offering a more intimate environment.
The closure of the state’s small colleges also has an economic component.
The Association of Vermont Independent Colleges points out that its member colleges teach 16,000 students, employ 4,300 faculty and staff and contribute $1.1 billion a year in spending, including $484 million in salaries.
AVIC President Susan Stitely said many of the private colleges in the state offer unique and creative programs.
“We do have unique colleges that have really unique niches that are very attractive to people outside the state,” Stitely said. “A lot of out-of-state students come to Vermont. In fact, we’re one of the key reasons people, young people, move to the state.”
AVIC doesn’t offer financial assistance to colleges but does work with colleges on cost-saving programs including health care, life and disability insurance, and joint-employer retirement plans.
If a school closes, AVIC works with schools to preserve and secure students’ academic records.
The organization also has a semester exchange program which allows students to attend another AVIC member college for one semester at the same tuition rate as their enrolled school.
While many small colleges struggle against demographic and financial headwinds, schools like Sterling College in Craftsbury have adapted to the changing times.
Most schools are heavily dependent on tuition and fees as the major source of revenue. That still holds true for Sterling College but the school, which emphasizes environmental studies, is not dependent on tuition alone.
“One of the areas of success the college has had has been in having a more diverse set of resources as far as operational income goes,” said President Matthew Derr. “We’ve tried to sort of expand beyond a high level of tuition dependence and to really increase the emphasis on philanthropy and raising funds that support the college and its mission.”
Derr said the college has created auxiliary programs to attract students like continuing education programs.
He said while a typical small college relies on tuition for 85 to 95 percent of its revenue, at Sterling that number is about 75 percent.
“About a quarter of our operational revenue comes from other sources and that gives us a little more flexibility,” Derr said.
He said the college has also kept a keen eye on its long-term debt.”Our debt is very small and the service on that debt is the equivalent of about one position at the college,” he said.
Sterling is indeed a small college with 110 students and 47 employees, including 18 faculty.
When it comes to philanthropy, Sterling recently received a $2.5 million grant from the NoVo Foundation.
Sterling is partnering with The Berry Center to launch The Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College in Henry County, Kentucky. The program is a no-tuition undergraduate sustainable agriculture degree program that honors farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry. The $2.5 million grant and match will provide $3.5 million to fund the program through 2024.
Before embarking on a new program, Derr said the college makes sure the program is fully funded.
“There’s an ethic at Sterling and a strategy that I think has served us well in some pretty difficult times for small colleges and in particular small colleges in Vermont,” Derr said, “to ensure that we have the resources in place before we bring the innovation on board.”
The state’s colleges are not immune either from changes in the industry. Castleton University last year eliminated 30 positions, 10 through layoffs, to deal with declining enrollment. Also last year, Johnson State College and Lyndon State College merged to form Northern Vermont University.
In announcing it would close after the spring semester, GMC cited a decline in enrollment and rising costs. Attempts to secure additional financing or a partner institution that would allow the college to remain in operation beyond May failed to materialize.
GMC reached an arrangement with Prescott College in Arizona that will give GMC students the option — known as a teach-out agreement — to complete their degrees. Prescott will also house the school’s academic records and create an entity that will carry on the Green Mountain College name. Both schools share a similar program of environmental studies.
There are several other teach-out agreements in place for GMC students including three here in Vermont: Sterling College, Marlboro College and Castleton University.
“If we could not remain here in Poultney, our goals had been to find an institution that had already committed to a sustainability curriculum, had a similar small college feel, would continue the Green Mountain legacy, be committed to ensuring that there would be little or no direct financial or academic impact on our students and, despite the notable change in geography and in climate, would provide for as smooth of a transition as possible for students,” GMC President Robert Allen said in the closing announcement.
Financially, Brittingham said it’s more difficult for small colleges to stay above water when enrollments don’t keep pace with expenses.
And the forecast is not encouraging, with more schools expected to close their doors or forced to merge with other institutions.
The New England Commission on Higher Education lists on its website nearly 100 schools that have closed or merged since the 1970s.
In the last 20 years several Vermont colleges have closed or merged: Burlington College (2016), Woodbury College merged with Champlain College (2008), Trinity College (2000). Prior to that Vermont College merged with Norwich University (1972); Windham College closed in 1978.
According to Inside Higher Ed, a 2016 report from Parthenon-EY estimates that nearly 800 private colleges with fewer than 1,000 students or less will close or merge within the next 10 to 15 years.
Nationwide, the report found that the 18-to-22-year-old college-age population is declining and is accelerating at a faster pace in New England. That scenario is not expected to change until 2033.
Moody’s Investors Services forecasts private college closure rates, which stand at 11 per year, will increase.
The New England Commission on Higher Education accredits 211 institutions in New England and 11 American-style colleges in other countries.
The Association of Vermont Independent Colleges includes Bennington College, Champlain College, College of St. Joseph, Goddard College, Landmark College, Marlboro College, Middlebury College, Norwich University, St. Michael’s College, School for International Training, Southern Vermont College, Sterling College, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Vermont Law School.
Editor’s note: Beginning next weekend, The Times Argus and Rutland Herald will begin publishing a regular column by contributing college officials, “Vermont by Degrees,” which explores the challenges facing higher education institutions across the state.