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 just it will announced 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.