by Will Wootton When an independent Vermont undergraduate college closes, as Burlington College, Green Mountain College, St Joseph's College, and Southern Vermont College recently have, it is almost by definition – at least in Vermont – the death of a small rural institution of age whose roots were inseparable from those binding its entire community. Each was singular and each represented and always had an alternative to the ever increasing growth and homogenization of American undergraduate education. It’s a good thing they do, so why do they fail?
On the societal scale, simple demographics – the decline in the college age population – is to blame. You can point the finger at today’s students, who follow their friends – their networks - instead of their passions, to the closest university. Or, perhaps most popular, it’s the small college business model itself that has brought on this purging. What made sense before does not today. That’s understandable.
But if small colleges can die with a whimper, why don’t the giants of education occasionally crash explosively? That’s easy: Colleges close because they run out of money.
And, over decades of exposure to inevitable fiscal crisis, political catastrophes, societal convulsions, changes in law and regulation and, of course, demographics, small colleges appear to simply fold up and die, while those same destructive forces can all be absorbed by the sheer bulk of modern gigantic institutions, public and private.
Think of that rain of asteroids that slammed into Jupiter a decade ago, leaving no lasting impression. Had that been Earth, we’d be shut down. So it’s no one’s fault, really, when a small college is obliterated in the fray.
But I’m not particularly sympathetic to colleges that fail. And I know intimately of what I speak.
Fifteen of my 19 years as an administrator at Marlboro College were distinguished by acute institutional financial distress. At times, our creditors, the Federal Department of Education, and our New England accrediting agency were zeroing in on us, simultaneously. More than once, Marlboro skirted the edge of closure.
In 2006, I became president of Sterling College, already in debt, and just as the recession morphed from a serious threat to a money, job, and community-sucking maw of fiscal – thus institutional - destruction.
Over four years Sterling worked – scratched – its way out of debt, and certainly the near-death experiences at Marlboro helped me understand what was happening at Sterling. When I retired in 2012, the College was fortunate to land a solid and innovative new president in Mathew Derr, who carries on today. The strong board I had is much changed, as it should be, and still strong.
But how to account for Burlington, and Green Mountain, St Joe’s and Southern Vermont? And in Massachusetts, and Mt Ida? And Sweet Briar brought to the edge of closure, and Cooper Union in New York almost shuttering itself? Hampshire College also has struggled and reduced enrollment to keep going. The list goes on, and I believe will grow.
We will hear the same reasons why: lack of money, lack of students, the inability to compete, and the obvious diseconomy of scale such institutions labor under. Small colleges are a remnant of the past, much like the rural communities they often occupy, as the rest of American higher education bounds forward, diversifying into for-profits and universities the size of small cities, and, significantly and wonderfully, into community colleges.
So it is really just the times that are doing in these smallest members of the collegiate empire. It’s no one’s fault. It’s unavoidable.
I don’t think so.
I believe when a small college closes it is usually – as in almost invariably – because of long-term leadership failures on the part of its governing board, usually with but sometimes without the active involvement of a president.
They didn’t see it coming. They could not or would not invoke change. They mistook growth for strength. They built or bought the giant building, but there was no one to fill it. They placed all their bets on one big idea. They hired the wrong president. They fired the wrong president. They believed their own PR. They saw their curriculum in tatters, and blamed students. They recognized their margins, and ignored them. They grew weaker and less versatile, instead of stronger and more nimble.
Then, finally, at the very end, they ran out of money.
Colleges of any size are complex, mission-based businesses and like any business susceptible to economic failure and closure. It’s not pretty, but where there is life, there is death, which is to be expected and prepared for, correct? In society, that is what babies are for. In forestry, it’s seedlings. In business, it’s a new idea and a new bank loan or investor.
Thinking this way, the death of too many small colleges turns out not to be the major issue. Birth is the issue. As near as I can determine, there has not been a new, accredited, undergraduate college founded in New England in over 40 years. Until then, accelerating in the progressive pre-WWII era and wildly expanding in the post-WWII GI Bill years, new, place-based institutions were popping up like rocks in a frost heave.
Then, for a combination of reasons I vaguely understand, the boom died as entrepreneurial academic visionaries faded away.
You would think - I would think – with our nation’s new collection of extremely wealthy people some few of them would be college founders, would seek out welcoming communities, and would possess whatever impulse it was that compelled the founders of all colleges to build.
Of course it does not help that today state governments generally regard independent colleges as somebody else’s business. They don’t pay much in the way of taxes, after all, and a few are very rich. They are, too, competitors to state-supported institutions. Finally, the Federal government and regional accrediting agencies provide plenty of oversight, why should states get more deeply involved in that than they are already with their own institutions?
In fact, when it comes to creating colleges, accrediting agencies withhold accreditation from a start-up college’s first three years of operation – meaning no Federal aid for students, and no transferable earned academic credit for those students. You start a business, you expect to be able to sell the product: it doesn’t work that way in independent higher education.
Thus it is difficult to see a future for us, being, metaphorically, practically barren, with newborn colleges as rare as moon rocks: Unless entrepreneurs turn their attention to the fertility of the rural experience and the opportunities for progressive education. Unless accrediting agencies can think of new ways to certify educational quality for start-up colleges. Unless states can understand rural colleges as economic and community drivers, and help support them. And unless governing boards and their presidents can better grasp the unique nature of small colleges and what it takes to let them prosper.
Will Wootton is the author of "Good Fortune Next Time: Life, death, Irony and the Administration of Very Small Colleges. (Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, 2017)
ED: This piece was updated to clarify that Hampshire College is still operating.