States Look to Increase Governance of Struggling Colleges

23 February, 2019

For 185 years, Green Mountain College has been educating students in the small town of Poultney, Vermont.

The college announced last month it is closing at the end of the current school year. The announcement has left hundreds of students trying to decide where to go next.

Green Mountain is a small, private liberal arts college that has seen a 43 percent drop in the number of students studying there over the past 10 years.

The Associated Press, or AP, notes that Green Mountain is going the way of some other small colleges and universities in the United States. These schools have struggled to continue operating during a general move toward career-centered training. They are also dealing with decreasing numbers of high school students, especially in the country's northeast – the area known as New England.

Lauren Coye is an environmental studies major at Green Mountain. She told the AP she is very sad about the college's decision to close.

"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 said.

Coye added that she and her friends thought they had another year and a half together before they completed their studies and left the school. "Now it's only four months," she said.

To help protect students, Vermont state officials have been looking into increasing their oversight of private, independent colleges. The plans have met resistance from college leaders, who worry schools' financial problems could be made public before they are at serious risk of closing.

This February 22, 2015 photo shows a building on the campus of Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont.
This February 22, 2015 photo shows a building on the campus of Burlington College in Burlington, Vermont.

New rules being created

In Massachusetts, at least 17 colleges have closed or joined with other schools over the past six years. Massachusetts education officials are moving forward with a plan to inspect the financial health of colleges every year and estimate their risk of closing. If the state decides a college might not finish the next academic year, it would be required to tell students and prepare a plan to help them gain admission to another school.

The state moved to intervene after the sudden closure of Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. Mount Ida announced last April it would be closing just a few weeks later. The news shocked students.

In Vermont, officials took notice when Burlington College closed in 2016 under the weight of debt from a land deal. The closing left no one in charge of Burlington's student records.

Lawrence Cupoli serves on Vermont's House Committee on Education. He said the state's Agency of Education had to take control of the records, which was costly. The next year, the state legislature had the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges set up an agreement with its member schools to house student records if a school closed.

Last year, Vermont lawmakers considered creating rules for any school being examined by its accrediting agency for financial reasons. Such schools would have been required to inform the state of the investigation and offer a plan for student records, setting money aside if necessary. That bill did not pass but lawmakers say they hope to consider similar proposals this legislative term.

Kathryn Webb heads Vermont's House Education Committee. She noted, "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."

The Massachusetts plan has led to criticism from some college administrators.

Helen Drinan is president of Simmons University in Boston. She said the plan seems like an unnecessarily large reaction to the Mount Ida closure, which she described as "one really bad incident."

"It feels like a heavy step," argued Drinan. "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 is head of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. He said he understands the concern from some schools and plans to work with them to finalize the state's inspection process.

This Tuesday, February 5, 2019, photo shows student Kyle Patterson at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont.
This Tuesday, February 5, 2019, photo shows student Kyle Patterson at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont.

A look at the country as a whole

At least 64 four-year private, nonprofit colleges and universities around the country have closed or announced closures since 1995, while 12 others have opened. These numbers come from the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Moody's Investor Service said in December that its position on the U.S. higher education industry is negative. The reason: limits on the growth of money schools earn from tuition payments.

The U.S. Department of Education and college accreditors have their own processes to measure the finances of schools and place struggling schools under close watch. But officials in Massachusetts say the process has failed to raise warnings soon enough in the past.

As of last December, more than 500 colleges and universities were being closely watched by the education department. The schools included Green Mountain College, but not Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts. Newbury announced on December 14 it would close after this academic year.

Green Mountain had just 428 undergraduate students signing up for its classes six months ago. The college explored possible partnerships and ways to increase money coming in before announcing its closure. A group of former students and parents is raising money to try to keep the school from closing, but many students are already making other plans. Green Mountain said it has agreements with some other colleges that will take in its students. One such school is Prescott College in Arizona.

Students knew that Green Mountain was in trouble, said Kyle Patterson, 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.

I'm ­Pete Musto.
And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

Lisa Rathke and Collin Binkley reported this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How often do colleges and universities close in your country? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

liberal artsn. areas of study, such as history, language, and literature, that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession

majorn. a student who has a specified main subject of study

campusn. the area and buildings around a university, college or school

oversightn. the area and buildings around a university, college, school

academicadj. of or relating schools and education

accreditingn. the process of saying that something is good enough to be given official approval

appropriateadj. right or suited for some purpose or situation

responsen. something that is done as a reaction to something else

netn. a device that is used for catching or holding things or for keeping things out of a space

seal (their) fateidm. to ensure that something unpleasant will happen to someone

negativeadj. harmful or bad

tuitionn. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

undergraduaten. a student at a college or university who has not yet earned a degree