Another American college announced its impending demise. Once again the campus is located in New England. Vermont’s Green Mountain College, 185 years old, will cease operations shortly, according to its (last) president.
What are the reasons for this shut down? My readers know them well. President Allen explains:
Despite our noteworthy accomplishments related to social and environmental sustainability, we have not been able to assure the economic sustainability of the College. Financial challenges are impacting liberal arts colleges throughout the country and Green Mountain College is no exception. These financial challenges, the product of major changes in demographics and costs, are the driving factors behind our decision to close at the end of this academic year.
Demographics and finances, as usual. These are some of the most powerful trends reshaping higher ed. As one local account put it, “it was a decrease in tuition revenue and an increase in expenses that ended up digging the college into a financial hole.” How far did that tuition drop? I can’t find hard dollar numbers, but VTDigger quotes a spokesperson as explaining “[e]nrollment has declined from 775 to 428 students over a six-year period.” If enrollment drops at an institution largely powered by tuition, the budget gets hammered.
Remember that Green Mountain is private, not receiving any state funds (not that Vermont spends a lot of higher ed). It also has a very small endowment – $3.1 million, according to US News – so that financial source can’t contribute much. Its size is also an issue, as it cannot realize the kinds of economies of scale that larger colleges and universities have access to.
What will happen next?
Prescott will house all of GMC’s student records, hire some of its faculty, and create a center, school or institute to carry the Green Mountain name.
The state of Vermont might follow Massachusetts and set up policies to help students in the case other colleges shut down.
Beyond this particular college, we can see the trends that killed GMC at play across much of the United States. The demographics and financials are dangerous for many colleges and universities. The elite should be fine. It’s the lower tier campuses that are especially in danger (check GMC’s US News rank: “#142-#187 in Regional Universities North”).
Readers know I’ve been forecasting about these trends for years. It gives me no joy to see them manifested in lived experience. As I’ve said before, if we’re sliding down the wrong slope of peak higher education, there will be a great deal of suffering.
Now is the time for institutions to dare new programs, new pedagogies, new efforts. This is where a multi-level engagement with technology can bear fruit, from critical digital engagement in traditional classes to more online learning. This may be when higher ed has to become more political. This is when inter-campus teaching can shine…
…but I will write more, later on, about the many things colleges and universities can do to survive and prosper. That might actually be the topic for my next book. For now, remember the fate of Green Mountain. I feel for their students, staff, and faculty.
(thanks to many people who shared news and thoughts on this story, including Robin DeRosa)