Green Mountain College students discuss solar energy at the school’s Poultney campus. GMC has found a niche as one of the country’s leading schools with a curriculum focused on the environment and sustainability. GMC photo.
by Bruce Edwards Vermont Business Magazine The College of Saint Joseph, facing a financial reckoning, caused by declining student enrollment and a failed attempt to offer a physician’s assistant program, has found a way to remain open. Given the school’s financial predicament it was uncertain whether the school would remain open. But the board of trustees in May came up with a plan to generate more income and keep the liberal arts college in business.
Declining enrollment is not unique to the College of Saint Joseph. It’s a national problem with enrollments in the fall of 2017 down at the nation’s college and universities for the sixth straight year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit database and provider of higher education verifications and electronic education record exchanges.
But the problem for the 62-year-old Rutland college was exacerbated by the school’s decision to seek accreditation to launch a physician’s assistant program.
After spending $2.5 million to establish the program, including hiring faculty, the accrediting organization denied the school’s application.
That decision, plus additional operating expenses, drained the school’s $5 million endowment to the point where only about $500,000 remained.
According to the colleges tax filing for 2016, the school generated $7.5 million in revenue to cover expenses of $10.1 million.
College spokesman James Lambert said the board of trustees weighed its options based on the current financial situation and the enrollment outlook for the fall.
There are currently 184 full-time undergraduate students enrolled with another 100 graduate students.
Prior to the vote by the trustees to remain open, Lambert said it’s difficult to ascertain a break even point, but based on other financial assumptions the college needs to have 235 full-time undergraduate students enrolled for the fall semester.
The trustees came up with a plan that sets a minimum enrollment for the fall of 200 full-time undergraduates.
“That’s really what makes up the majority of revenue,” Lambert said.
Enrollment aside, the college found itself in such a precarious situation when it failed to launch its physician’s assistant program. If successful, the program would have been a boon to enrollment.
Lambert said the college spent $2.5 million on attempting to gain accreditation.
“Based on the way that works to gain accreditation you have to do that,” he said. “You have to have all of your staff on, you have to have your facilities and you have to have all of that before you even apply.”
In 2016, ARC-PA, the accrediting organization, denied certification in part because at the time of the site visit the school did not have enough clinical sites on board.
Lambert said the college had the option to seek reconsideration but could not afford to keep its eight PA staff on payroll for another year, plus additional overhead until ARC-PA conducted another review.
According to the ARC-PA website, there are 235 physician assistant programs certified in the country.
The College of Saint Joseph isn’t alone among local colleges when it comes to declining enrollments.
Castleton University is nearing completion on a restructuring plan.
University spokesman Jeff Weld said the plan includes early retirement offers that will result in “a smaller than originally anticipated number of layoffs.”
The school currently has 400 employees, including 100 full-time faculty.
Castleton graduation May 2018. Courtesy Castleton.
Although there will be will fewer faculty and staff, Weld said the school will be well-positioned for the future.
“Throughout the process we sort of identified a lot of areas to grow,” Weld said. “We’re encouraged by our opportunities in Rutland County and Vermont and beyond.”
Under former President David Wolk the college embarked on an ambitious bricks and mortar upgrade to the campus.
Weld said the debt incurred plays a role in the school’s difficulties.
“It certainly is a part of it,” Weld said. “At the same time without those infrastructure improvements the argument can be made we wouldn’t have the enrollment that we do and we’d be facing a much different challenge at this point.”
Weld said there are no plans as part of the restructuring to eliminate football or other athletic programs. He said one-third of students participate in varsity athletics.
He also said there are no plans to close any student housing, including the downtown apartments in Rutland which continue to be in demand by both undergraduate and graduate students. Weld said there are 70 students living in the downtown apartments on West Street.
Similar to many schools, the decline in enrollment is being attributed to changing demographics.
Castleton has 1,800 full-time undergraduate students. That’s down 200 from its peak undergraduate enrollment a few years ago, Weld said.
The other issue is where the students come from. Currently, 70 percent of students are Vermont residents and 30 percent are out of state. That makes a difference in terms of tuition with out-of-state students paying more.
Ideally, Weld said, “If the numbers were closer to 60 percent, 40 percent” then 1,800 students is a financially viable number.
One of the first casualties of the restructuring was the termination of the university’s formal partnership with the Rutland Economic Development Corp.
The school footed the salary for Lyle Jepson, REDC’s executive director. Jepson was also the university’s dean of entrepreneurial programs. When Jepson’s job at the university was eliminated, the school also backed out of its financial arrangement with REDC.
Weld said given the budget projections the school “could no longer sustain that partnership.”
He said the university continues to support Rutland and REDC just not on a formal basis.
“We still partner with them on a lot of things,” he said.
With a $50 million annual budget, Weld said Castleton University is projecting a $1.5 million deficit
At Green Mountain College in Poultney, enrollment for freshman and transfers is on track for the fall semester with 200 undergraduate students, a 33 percent increase over last fall, said GMC President Robert Allen. Total undergraduate enrollment stands at 430 students.
GMC has made a name for itself in the niche area of the environment and sustainability with the college better targeting its marketing efforts to attract interested students, Allen said.
“I think our mission resonates with young people these days,” Allen said. “Young people want to make a difference.”
He said for most of the students Main Street is more important than Wall Street.
Student retention rates are at a 20-year high, he said.
Total undergraduate enrollment of 430 students is a number Allen said he’d like to improve upon. Ideally, he said the goal is to have 800 to 1,000 students, which will probably take five years to achieve.
In addition, GMC has 250 graduate students taking courses online.
Allen believes GMC is well-positioned for the future based on its sustainability offerings.
Tom Mauhs-Pugh, provost and vice president of academic affairs, said the focus on sustainability is in three areas: the environment, social systems and economic systems.
Mauhs-Pugh said the traditional majors have the traditional discipline but at GMC, “They look at things through that lens of those complex systems, natural and human systems.”
He said the school has been singled out by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education as having the top sustainability program in the country.
Environmental studies is GMC’s largest major. Master’s degrees are offered in sustainable communities and sustainable food systems.
GMC has 40 full-time faculty members, plus 36 adjunct faculty, and a staff of 88.
The college practices what it preaches. The school is a 100-percent carbon neutral campus, has a 22-acre organic farm and operates a biomass wood chip boiler.
Allen said the college is an economic engine in the area with $7 million in annual payroll and supports local businesses.
For example, he said GMC spends $250,000 a year buying wood chips from a local supplier.
At the Rutland campus of Community College of Vermont, enrollment is meeting expectations, said Pam Chisholm, CCV dean of enrollment.
“When the economy started to improve and there were more jobs available in Rutland … we knew we wouldn’t see as many students coming in so we adjusted our enrollment targets accordingly and met those targets I’m happy to say,” Chisholm said.
Enrollment at the downtown campus averages between 500 and 600 students a semester, she said.
Rutland CCV has 70 faculty members.
While community colleges are often seen as primarily attracting non-traditional students, Chisholm said the Rutland campus also attracts a good number of recent high school graduates because of the quality of the education and the cost.
“They can really jump start their plans to move onto a four-year institution very affordably and get a good quality education,” Chisholm said.
At $261 a credit hour, she said CCV is the least expensive college in the state.
CCV has 12 campuses around the state with a total enrollment of 7,000 students, making it the second largest school behind the University of Vermont.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from southern Vermont.