Facing pressure from accreditors over tenuous finances, Southern Vermont College announced on Monday that it will close at the end of this semester.
It will be the third school in Vermont to close this spring in what is becoming an increasingly difficult era for such colleges. The small liberal arts school in Bennington has 400 students, nearly half of whom are low-income and the first in their family to attend college.
Southern Vermont President David Evans announced the closure a few days after the New England Commission of Higher Education held a hearing to scrutinize the college’s operations and finances. Evans said the commission informed him after the meeting that it intended to withdraw its accreditation.
Evans said he understands the decision but believes if not for the hearing the school could have found a way to survive. Applications were up 10 percent this year, and so were deposits, he said.
“It’s disastrous economically for a place like Vermont, that needs to import more young people. I think this is a large, looming problem for the state,” he said.
The closure announcement comes just a month after Green Mountain College, in Poultney, announced it will also close amid money worries. The College of Saint Joseph, in Rutland, is also set to close this semester because accreditors plan to withdraw its accreditation over similar financial concerns. Goddard College in Plainfield is on probation, meaning it has two years to satisfy accreditors’ concerns.
In Massachusetts, Newbury College will also close this spring. Mount Ida College closed last year, and Wheelock College merged with Boston University.
In a small state like Vermont, a college closure affects not only the students and professors but also the local economy.
Higher education is the third largest industry in the state and provides well-paid jobs with benefits that attract new residents to the state, said Tom Greene, chairman of the Vermont Higher Education Council, an association of all the college presidents in the state.
“Their impact culturally and economically is hard to replace, especially in places like Vermont,” he said.
Greene, who is also founder and president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, said at the same time he does not fault accreditors for doing their job. The regional accrediting agency has become more aggressive following the tumultuous closure of Mount Ida, which shuttered abruptly with no immediate plan for where students could transfer.
“I don’t think it’s an overreaction. I do think there has been a probably appropriate sea-change in the way that accreditors are looking at individual institutions, and that’s mostly driven by the best interest of students,” he said.
Greene said policy makers in Vermont and other states where schools have closed should pay more attention to the economic impact of a closure.
“It should be getting people’s attention that this is a significant industry,” he said.
Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education, said it is always difficult when a school closes; it’s like a death in the family.
Because of the public nature of the Mount Ida fiasco as well as the increasing number of closures and recent public attention to the high cost of a college education, people are paying more attention to these issues, she said.
“I think the Mount Ida effect has been significant,” she said.
Evans, the Southern Vermont president, said students were sad and uncertain about their future when they learned the news on Monday. The school has a plan to transfer students to the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts about 30 minutes away in North Adams.
Evans took over as president in January 2015. He said he knew back then there were problems but didn’t realize their severity. But he said there were no huge mistakes that led to the school’s demise.
Instead, he gave an example of how precarious the finances of a small school can be. For many years, one recruiter was responsible for attracting students from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, about 10 per year. But a few years ago, that recruiter was in a car accident and could not recruit that year. As a result, no one from the Northeast Kingdom enrolled that year, and Evans said the school is still feeling the loss of that potential revenue.
For students and their families, such a closure often comes out of nowhere. Elena Konchar’s son Benjamin is a sophomore at the school. He texted her this morning with the news.
“It’s sad. It’s a great college — the campus itself is just so pretty,” said Konchar, who lives in central New York state. “Just the most down-to-earth faculty and staff that actually care about your kids.”
Tuition, room and board at the school is about $36,000 a year, and her son has taken out loans to help afford it. She said she told him to research whether he might want to attend a public university in New York state that might offer him more aid.
Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.