States look to boost oversight of struggling small colleges
POULTNEY, Vt. (AP) — After 185 years of educating students on its campus of brick buildings on Poultney’s main street, Green Mountain College announced last month it would close after this academic year, leaving hundreds of students scrambling to figure out where to go next.
The liberal arts college, which saw enrollment drop 43 percent over the last decade, is going the way of some other small schools that have struggled to stay afloat amid a shift toward more career-oriented training and, particularly in college-rich New England, a decline in the number of high school students.
“I’m definitely just sad and disappointed,” said Lauren Coye, an environmental studies major from Plaistow, New Hampshire. “I mean this community is so great and I fell in love with the campus as soon as I came here, and the farm and the goats and everyone in town, too.”
She and her friends thought they had another year and a half together, she said. “Now it’s only four months,” she said.
To help protect students, state officials in the region have been looking into increasing their oversight of private, independent colleges. The plans have met resistance from college leaders, who worry financial woes could be publicized before they are at serious risk of closing.
In Massachusetts, where at least 17 colleges have closed or merged over the past six years, state education officials are moving forward with a plan to screen colleges every year and gauge their risk of closing. If the state concludes a school might not finish the next academic year, it would be required to notify students and prepare a plan to help them transfer elsewhere.
The state moved to intervene after the abrupt shutdown of Mount Ida College, which announced last April it would be closing just weeks later. The news blindsided students.
In Vermont, officials took notice when Burlington College folded in 2016 under the weight of debt from a real estate deal, leaving student records behind. The state Agency of Education had to take over the records, which was costly, said Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, vice chairman of the House Committee on Education. The following year, the Legislature had the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges set up an agreement with its member schools to house student records if a school went out of business.
Vermont legislators last year considered requiring that a school placed on probation for financial reasons by its accrediting agency inform the state of its status and submit a plan for student records, setting money aside if necessary. That bill did not pass but lawmakers hope to take up similar language this session.
“With the recent news about Green Mountain College and concern about what’s happening around New England, it does seem appropriate for us to continue to look at a response,” said Rep. Kathryn Webb, chair of the House Education Committee.
The Massachusetts plan has drawn outrage from some college leaders.
Helen Drinan, president of Simmons University, said it seems like an overreaction to the Mount Ida closure, which she described as “one really bad incident.”
“It feels like a heavy step,” said Drinan, whose school faced financial hardship in 2008 but bounced back. “Anybody caught in that net is going to get a lot of attention that may or may not be deserved, and that may or may not seal their fate. That just doesn’t seem right.”
Carlos Santiago, the state’s commissioner of higher education, said he understands the concern from some institutions and plans to work with them to finalize the screening process.
Nationwide, at least 64 four-year private, nonprofit institutions around the country have closed or announced pending closures since 1995 and 12 have opened, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Moody’s Investor Service said in December the outlook for the U.S. higher education sector remains negative because of constrained tuition revenue growth.
The U.S. Education Department and college accreditors have their own processes to measure the finances of schools and place struggling institutions under greater scrutiny, but officials in Massachusetts say the process has failed to raise alarms soon enough in the past.
As of Dec. 1, more than 500 schools were under heightened monitoring by the federal agency, including Green Mountain College but not Newbury College, a Massachusetts school that announced Dec. 14 it would shut down after this academic year.
Green Mountain College, which saw its undergraduate population drop to just 428 students this fall, explored potential partnerships and ways to boost revenue before announcing its closure. A group of alumni and parents is raising money to try to keep the school from closing, but many students are already making other plans. The school said it has arrangements with some other colleges that will take in students, including Prescott College in Arizona.
Students knew that the school was in trouble, said sophomore Kyle Patterson, of the Red Bank-Middletown area of New Jersey, so he made plans to attend Paul Smith’s College in New York.
“I just felt bad for everyone else who didn’t have a plan,” he said.
Binkley reported from Boston.