Another small American college will close

My most recent blog post had the grim title of “casualties of the future.”  I wrote about how American higher ed is experiencing problems and losses as it seeks to change from one historical stage to another.

And now there’s another example.

Southern_Vermont_College_sealSouthern Vermont College just announced it will close, although its website doesn’t seem to have been updated to reflect this.  The immediate cause is withdrawal of accreditation by the New England Commission of Higher Education (which also hasn’t updated its listing for SVC).

What causes NECHE to end its accreditation and thereby kill the college?  NECHE didn’t think SVC’s finances were sound enough for it to keep going.  The accreditor recently held a hearing on this, looking to determine if the school had

“sufficient human, financial, information, physical, and technological resources and capacity to support its mission,” and that “the institution demonstrates that its resources are sufficient to sustain the quality of its educational program and to support institutional improvement now and in the foreseeable future.”

Evidently, it did not.

One reason for that financial finding may well be the scheduling of NECHE’s investigation.  According to SVC’s president, that hammered the school’s ability to recruit students for fall 2019:

“On Friday morning,” said President David R. Evans, “the board voted to close the college at the end of the spring semester, concluding that, given all the factors including the fact that we ceased recruiting new students almost immediately after receiving notice of the show-cause hearing, and right in the middle of the prime recruiting season, suggested that there was no plausible way we could continue our trajectory of increasing numbers of new incoming students, and as such would face an impossible fiscal situation next year.”

Evans offered these enrollment numbers: “‘We were projecting 365 students,’ Evans said, but now ‘the best case scenario is for 275 students…” In Inside Higher Ed’s note about the closing Evans was very clear on the point that this was about enrollment and finances.

“Please note that NECHE’s concern was limited to SVC’s finances only. The quality of the education we offer, institutional integrity, the transferability of courses and the value of our degrees are not in question.”

The college did try to find a strategic partner and to garner more philanthropic support, but failed:

Over the past few weeks, we have continued our longstanding aggressive efforts to secure additional philanthropic support and seek potential strategic alliances that would strengthen the college and secure its mission into the future.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has offered to teach out some of SVC’s current students.  Norwich and Castelton University may also help those students, according to Vermont Public Radio.  It’s not clear how the college’s staff and faculty will be supported as their employment ends, although the Facebook announcement promises that “we will provide additional information soon.”

Souther Vermont is a very small school, enrolling just under 400 students.  Its endowment is about $3 million, according to US News.

Some of this sad story is very particular to the institution (I’m conscious here of Swarthmore’s Tim Burke and his admonition to focus on a school’s specific history: here’s SVC’s).  As VTDigger summarizes, the college was hit “by two big reputational blows, when its nursing program in 2013 nearly lost its own accreditation, and when its former chief financial officer was accused of embezzlement.”

Some of this depends on the Vermont context, which is not very good for higher ed. The state’s demographics trends are of rapid aging and few traditional-age students. On the public side, Vermont has very, very low levels of support for its universities.  And casualties have already occurred.  Another Vermont campus, Green Mountain, announced it would close last month.  Vermont Law removed tenure from its faculty in a bid to save money.  Vermont Digger notes that “NECHE has decided to withdraw the accreditation of the College of St. Joseph in Rutland at the end of the year…” Can we see Vermont as having passed its own higher education peak?

The SVC story connects as well to larger trends.  As my readers know, Vermont’s demographics are advanced compared to the rest of the nation, but are not unique, as the developed world shows that kind of reduced fertility.  SVC’s fragility to low enrollment is also fairly widespread, especially given its tiny endowment (again, the supermajority of American campuses do not own substantial endowments). Its small size also makes it more vulnerable to pressures which larger schools could better absorb (but not losing accreditation). Note, too, the college’s push for philanthropic support, a classic American college move.  There’s also its drive to “seek potential strategic alliances.” We’ve already seen a similar idea in the Hampshire College story as well as in other merger stories.  I would expect to see more “alliance” attempts as higher ed’s crisis unfolds.

As casualties mount this year, we might expect some other developments as a result.  Media accounts could well run with stories of an academic crisis, and whip up a frenzy of dread (tv news is especially prone to this). Investors and philanthropists might incline towards seeing higher ed or portions thereof as less stable than they once did, which could reduce their offerings (and so even heighten the crisis). Campus communities might become more nervous.  Would-be students might become more skeptical of certain colleges.

On a minor, technological note, I’m struck by how SVC issued its announcement on Facebook.  The college’s main website doesn’t seem to have any information as of now.  The accreditor’s website also looks to be out of date.  In contrast, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts quickly launched their student transfer page.  Are we seeing some academics paying less heed to their open web content and more attention to Facebook?

My deepest sympathies are with Southern Vermont’s community.

PS: I’m writing this from Australia, where I’m working with a group of universities there and a technology firm.  Apologies if this post is unnecessarily dry or telegraphic.  My internal clock is still being reset.

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12 Responses to Another small American college will close

  1. Ken Soto says:

    After seeing so many of these occur over the last few years, and most with so much in common, it’s hard not to conclude that this path is unavoidable. I’d hope that folks smarter than I could figure out how to turn these death spirals around but the combination of changing demographics and increasing costs, along with no real differentiation maybe means that no solution would work.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Sobering thought, Ken.
      Are there any strategies you’ve seen that are especially useful in coaxing schools out of those death spirals?

      • Ken Soto says:

        No, but I am reading James Samels’ book and watched this webcast awhile back:

        There are strategies to make this work but I suspect this comes down to an oversupply of colleges, located in places that are emptying out of college-bound high schoolers, and nothing can change that. Some may merge and form alliances, and some may specialize or pivot to online and adult/continuing education, but the small-college business model will continue to lose students who will find mid-to-large schools more stable and attractive.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Which Samels title, Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities?

          I fear you’re right about oversupply.

    • Dahn Shaulis says:

      I think its possible that the failures will intensify. EY-Parthenon did a study in 2016 stating that more than 800 schools were not on a sustainable path. The for-profit colleges have been hardest hit, but private colleges with smaller numbers are particularly vulnerable. Community colleges have faced the largest enrollment losses, and we may see mergers ahead (it’s already happening in New Jersey). I’d like to know from readers what they are experiencing in their states.

  2. Dahn Shaulis says:

    More schools are likely to follow, either in merging or closing. You can follow the subprime college crash and the larger US College Meltdown here:

  3. Hey. Thanks for the quality reporting. You’re my primary source for ed news, although I do check some other things. (I’m a few months out of date with respect to NC, though, but I certainly *am* celebrating Margaret Spellings’ final month disimproving education in the state, even if we *are* giving her a $500,000 parting gift for being a thieving, lying poor thinker.)

    Just so you know, I hope to buy some of these colleges up asap, do the right thing at them, and (perhaps you know this part already) make them profitable purely via our alumni network. I mean, if the alumni network isn’t saving these colleges, that says a lot, right? Who, if not them, should save these colleges? It’s a feedback system. I sure am curious what’s happening at Ursinus right now. Like for real, behind closed doors.

    Perhaps I’ll send you a private message somewhere to this effect, but if you—or any of your avid readers—would like to point me to some database of interesting higher ed data in, like, spreadsheet form, I’d R it up (R, the statistical package) and make some pretty and perhaps very interesting and informative pictures for you. If you want to post a pointer in a comment here so anybody can get to it, that would be cool. Have I asked you about this before? Idk. Anyway, I have now. Anything. School closures by year, location, graduation rates, whatever. There’s got to be some good, accurate, complete, public stuff out there, right? Somebody getting a PhD in education must have access to some of this stuff. Do you know anybody?

    You know, I think it would be pretty hard for anyone at an institution to embezzle funds if you just publish all of your numbers, open-source like, and in a really easily readable form. Wouldn’t that be cool? Does anybody do that? The City of Asheville says they do that but I checked it out (it’s admittedly been a while) and it superficially seems accessible but in practice it’s almost indecipherable. I can’t really figure out whether that’s by design or by incompetence. I figure it’s both. I mean, all of them have degrees from “respectable” institutions, you know?

  4. John Wilson says:

    Bryan, I’ve been following your blog for some time and would like to chime in on this issue.

    Having worked in a variety of colleges and universities of various enrollments, endowments, and rankings, I’ve concluded that what is happening now is a necessary correction by the market forces. I realize that what I’m about to say is cold-hearted considering that college closures impact people’s livelihoods, especially in small communities where no other opportunities may exist.

    That being said, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad thing that so many colleges are closing. I’ve witnessed the decline of higher education since the 80s, but it got a new lease on life since the late 90s when Chinese and Indian students started arriving in droves and paying full-sticker price for education. This was like a drug injection that temporarily numbed the symptoms, but never really addressed the underlying issue of the illness which is what you write about in your blog: demographics, demand, technology, etc.

    Now in this current political climate we are finding that international student enrollment is suddenly tanking and the goldmine is drying up. The big schools (let’s say top 500) will probably adjust and figure something out, but the SVCs of the world are really in for a very rude awakening.

    In the short term I foresee a lot of pain as closures will impact faculty, staff, students, and alumni. But in the long term I believe the market will force institutions to adjust which means that tuition will need to be made more affordable and institutions will need to stop relying on international students to make up the budget shortfalls, and programs that don’t give graduates a good step up in the market will be whittled down. First on the chopping block will be the humanities which is unfortunate, but does a history degree and $100k of debt compete with a CS or IT program?

    All that being said, the bigger issue is that we are in changing times when politics and economics is shifting away from the Bretton Woods era order, into something new. Nobody quite knows what it is and people much smarter than you or me are just as much in the dark. In the age of looming AI and automation, the fundamental value of an education is being questioned and so far nobody really has an answer beyond “more education” as the solution.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I think that’s right, John: market correction.

      Do you think we’ll be able to regrow international enrollment after Trump?

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