As Colleges Close, How Will Vermont Schools Survive?

Feb 7, 2020

Low enrollment and financial troubles have caused a slew of Vermont’s small, independent colleges to shut their doors. What’s causing the problem — and is there a solution?

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening if you can! But we also provide a transcript below for accessibility and reference.

In our newest installment of Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project, we take on your questions about the higher education landscape in Vermont.

We put a call out for questions back in October, and got a lot of great input. Now, VPR’s Amy Noyes, who has been reporting on higher ed in Vermont with a fellowship from the Education Writers Association, has answers to these three questions:

“Why are student populations shrinking?” — Diana Clark, South Burlington

“Are small liberal arts colleges closing throughout New England? Throughout the United States? Or just in Vermont?” — Andy Davis, Brattleboro

“What are other small colleges, like Goddard in Plainfield, doing to prevent this from happening?” — Cassie Major, Barre

We produced this episode a little differently, so instead of posting a rewrite of our script here, we are opting to share the original transcript. Enjoy!

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The transcript

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print!

Angela Evancie: Almost exactly a year ago, in January 2019, Green Mountain College made an announcement. The spring semester would be its last.

TV reporter: Thursday’s gloomy weather matching the mood of campus of Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont.

TV reporter: The liberal arts college that specialized in environmental studies wasn’t bringing in enough revenue –

TV reporter: The main problem was shrinking enrollment …

Green Mountain College.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR File

Angela Evancie: Green Mountain College had been struggling for years to balance its budget and keep its enrollment numbers. But it wasn’t the first time this kind of story was in the news.

VPR Newscast: I’m Alex Keefe with VPR News.

A few years prior, in 2016...

VPR Newscast: Burlington College is shutting down at the end of next week

Angela Evancie: ... Burlington College had closed down, also due to financial pressures.

VPR Newscast:  Officials made the announcement this morning. They say they had no choice.

Angela Evancie: But last year, after the news about Green Mountain College, this story started almost repeating itself.

[MUSIC: “DRIFTING SPADE” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Angela Evancie: In March:

TV reporter: Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Vermont

Angela Evancie: And just a few weeks later, the College of St. Joseph in Rutland.

TV Reporter: the College of St. Joseph in Rutland

TV Reporter: ... closing the college at the end of the academic year due to financial issues and low enrollment.

Angela Evancie: Then, later on in November –   

Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley: We don’t have enough students, and therefore we don’t have enough revenue to be sustainable.

Angela Evancie: Another one: Marlboro College.

VPR Newscast: Marlboro College plans to close this spring and transfer students and faculty to Emerson College in Boston.

Angela Evancie: All these stories sound the same.

Marlboro student: Pretty heartbroken because I came here to be close to where I am.

College of St. Joseph’s Student: It’s difficult to try and stomach.

Green Mountain College President Bob Allen: As you can imagine, many parents were really angry.

Angela Evancie: Now, schools close. It happens. For example, maybe you remember Trinity College, in Burlington. It shut down in 2000. But to have so *many* closures, in such quick succession...

Amy Kolb Noyes: I really thought that we haven’t seen the end of it yet, and I wanted to find out why.

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Angela Evancie: My colleague Amy Kolb Noyes reports on education for VPR. And over the past six months she’s been digging into this story, this trend.

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]

Amy Kolb Noyes: So there are several types of colleges and universities in Vermont. There are public schools — UVM and the state college system. The vast majority of the other colleges are these small, independent colleges that I’ve been focusing on.

Angela Evancie: Amy Kolb Noyes had a lot of her own questions.

Amy Kolb Noyes: I wanted to know why these colleges were closing and if we needed to worry about other Vermont independent colleges following the trend, and what the colleges that remain are doing differently in order to remain viable.    

Angela Evancie: But we also figured we’d take this opportunity to answer your questions. Because that’s what we do on this show. You tell us what you want to know, and we set out to find the answers. Because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.

So from Vermont Public Radio, this is Brave Little State. I’m Angela Evancie. And today:

Amy Kolb Noyes: So, Cassie, I'm going to have you bring that mic a little closer to you.

Cassie Major: OK. Good afternoon.

Angela Evancie: Answers to your questions about higher education in Vermont.

Andy Davis: All of those things compound to the idea about, you know, it makes me ask, you know, what's happening to Vermont? 

Angela Evancie: We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. Welcome.

Diana's question

Angela Evancie: There’s a lot of debate right now about the value of a liberal arts education in the 21st century. Spoiler: We’re going to acknowledge that debate in this episode, but we are not going to try to determine who is right. We’re also not going to weigh the question of whether college should actually be free, even though that’s a big topic in the current presidential primary.

Instead, we’re gonna stick to three of your questions. First up:

Diana Clark: Hi, my name is Diana Clark. I’m from South Burlington and I currently live overseas. So why are student populations shrinking?

Amy Kolb Noyes: We’re starting here because shrinking student populations are at the center of this whole phenomenon of schools closing. 

Angela Evancie: In fact, it’s a population trend that has its own name. A very ominous-sounding name.

Amy Kolb Noyes: The “demographic cliff.”

[MUSIC: “FLORETIN” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Angela Evancie: If you’re connected to the world of higher education, you’ve heard this phrase. If not, it refers to a population of students that is shrinking quite dramatically. If you were to look at the numbers on a graph, you’d see them drop off, like a cliff. So why are these student populations shrinking?

Amy Kolb Noyes: Basically, the American birth rate dropped dramatically starting in 2008. When the Great Recession hit, people stopped having babies. And Americans still aren’t having kids at the same rate as before 2008.

Norwich University.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR File

Richard Schneider: And now, since ‘08 in particular, and the recession of ‘08, you guys have stopped having babies. In fact, you haven’t started again. So, that is the cliff that people are talking about.

Amy Kolb Noyes: That’s Richard Schneider. He’s the president of Norwich University. He and other administrators know that the numbers will get even worse. We’re only a dozen years out from the 2008 recession. Most students start college around 18. In other words, we’re just barely starting to go over the demographic cliff.

Matthew Derr: And so I think the challenges that we face are real and identifiable.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Matthew Derr is already seeing the effects of this cliff, which has also been called the “birth dearth.” Derr is the president of Sterling College. It’s a small, environmentally-focused work-college in Craftsbury Common. He’s been there for about seven years.

Matthew Derr: In the time that I’ve been president at Sterling, the number of graduates in Vermont high schools has declined by 20%. That’s just a short period of time, really.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Twenty percent. So, that’s the cliff. And in fact, Vermont is a little further down that cliff than other parts of the country. And to Diana’s question, about shrinking student population, there’s something else compounding the problem: Fewer high school graduates are taking the traditional college path, for a multitude of reasons. The high cost of college is a big one, but it’s not the only reason.

Andy's question

Andy Davis: You know, based upon my experience as an elementary school teacher, I do think our school systems have gotten too oriented toward, “Everybody's heading to college.” That is the yardstick. Some people want to work with their hands. 

Andy Davis.
Credit Courtesy

This is our next question-asker, Andy.

Andy Davis: Hi, my name’s Andy Davis, and I live in Brattleboro, and I’m wondering if small liberal arts colleges are closing throughout New England, throughout the country, or if this is just happening here in Vermont?

Angela Evancie: It is so rare that we have a question-asker nail the question on the first try. That was perfect. [LAUGHTER]

Angela Evancie: Andy went to VPR’s studio in Brattleboro at the Latchis Theater to talk to Amy Kolb Noyes and me.

Angela Evancie: Why did you ask this question? Where did your curiosity come from?

Andy Davis: Well, it started right in my family. My daughter, who has special needs, was going to a program at Southern Vermont College in Bennington.

Angela Evancie: Andy’s daughter was actually attending Southern Vermont College when it announced it was closing.

Andy Davis: We had to find an alternative. And fortunately, she's now up at Castleton.

Angela Evancie: He’s paid attention to the other closures, too.

Andy Davis: And there's also been on the national scene all this talk about the cost of college and the amount of student debt. So I know it is a national problem, but I just didn't know if these small colleges are particularly hard hit because they're rural, because they're particularly small.

Angela Evancie: Now, usually we meet our question-askers before we set out to answer their questions. But when we talked to Andy — and when we talked to our next question-asker, Cassie — Amy Kolb Noyes had already done most of her reporting. Which was great. Because we got to have a nice long conversation, and share the answers on the spot. Amy Kolb Noyes also played some tape from her reporting; you’ll hear us refer to those little sound clips as “bites.”

Angela Evancie: Maybe let's tackle the first part of your question, which is sort of like, is this just a Vermont thing? Is this happening in other places? Um, so Amy Kolb Noyes, how would you answer that?

Amy Kolb Noyes: I would say it is not just a Vermont problem. It's all of the above. It’s happening throughout New England, it’s happening throughout the United States. And Vermont is definitely well represented, but also New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. But then also, Wisconsin, Alabama, Kansas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, California, really, truly all over the country.

Andy Davis: You're kind of scaring me.

Amy Kolb Noyes: I'm sorry. It’s so true.

Andy Davis: [LAUGHTER] It's worse than I thought.

[MUSIC: “FRONT RUNNER” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Amy Kolb Noyes: To answer your question and my questions, one of the first people I spoke to was Susan Stitely. She's the president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges. They call it AVIC. So she's got a pretty good handle on the challenges that all of these small Vermont schools face. So I just wanted to play you a little tape from my conversation with her.

Andy Davis: Great.

Susan Stitely: I think across New England we're gonna see more colleges close, and across the country as well. Another huge demographic drop is coming in 2023. So, again, there's going to be a big lack of college-aged students. So this is an ongoing situation for many years to come.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Any gut reaction to what she had to say?

Andy Davis: Well, um, it almost makes me ask more questions. One is, are there any success stories? The other question that popped into my mind is, you know, we've had this program of paying people a stipend to come to Vermont and telecommute. And it seems to me that education is a perfect opportunity for using technology to be in a treehouse in Vermont and yet be studying, you know, Middle Eastern art or, you know, being in touch with engineers in Seattle, because we have that ability.      

Champlain College.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR

Amy Kolb Noyes: Right. Connectivity is a big piece of the puzzle there. And I'll tell you, there are schools that are leaning in to distance learning. Champlain College just announced that they have cut their online tuition in half in order to, I think, really promote their online learning program. And Sterling College has a new continuing education department. They call it the School for the New American Farmstead. And they are working with, like, cheese makers and authors from Chelsea Green Publishing to teach these short credential courses, not degree programs. And they're attracting people from all over the world.

Andy Davis: Yeah. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: So, yes! There actually is some good news coming out of this. Let me, I actually have a bite here from Matthew Derr, who is the president of Sterling College. And he speaks a little bit here about the perception of small colleges closing in Vermont and how they're handling that and what it means for them. Let me play that for you.

Andy Davis: Good.

Matthew Derr: We're definitely part of an ecosystem of colleges in New England, and I think one of the really tragic things about the closures is it creates a narrative about Vermont that is unhelpful. And so we'll see flat enrollment from last year to this year. 

Angela Evancie: What strikes me about the bite that you just played, Amy Kolb Noyes — the fact that we have this sort of cascade of closures is a story in and of itself. And it's kind of shaping Vermont's reputation as a whole and trickling down to whether or not people might be applying to Vermont schools because they've seen this coverage of, “Oh, all these schools are closing.” That sort of compounds on itself.

Andy Davis: I think the thing about the way it's shaping maybe people's perception of Vermont is unfortunate. I know with Act 46 where, you know, it's not the intention of that legislation, but schools are closing, we're losing students from the youngest part of our educational system as well as college. So we have schools closing. We have other institutions, just recently, statewide news about our psychiatric hospital here in Brattleboro. And all of those things compound to the idea about, you know, it makes me ask, you know, what's happening to Vermont? 

[MUSIC: “FRONT RUNNER” BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS”]

Amy Kolb Noyes: Well, I have a little bit more tape to play you and this goes in sort of a different direction. It comes from Norwich University in Northfield.

Andy Davis: Sure.                                                                        

Amy Kolb Noyes: Norwich is about as different from Sterling College as it gets, right? [LAUGHTER] It’s the biggest independent college in Vermont. It has about 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students, civilians, military cadets. It's the oldest private military college in the country. And the president there is Richard Schneider, who has also been around a good deal. He's retiring this year after 28 years on the job. And he makes the point that this problem didn't happen overnight. It's been a long time in the making. So I wanted to play you a little bit from him.

Andy: Good.

Richard Schneider: Before World War II, there were just a small percentage of Americans that went to college. After World War II with the G.I. Bill, we overbuilt. And it's really a shame, but this is just natural selection at work. And there will be more schools closing both in Vermont, I think, and in other places, because the students are simply not there.

Amy Kolb Noyes: So these demographic issues are definitely a big part of the problem. But as you mentioned, they're not the only problem. Some students don't want to go to college. They don't see the payoff. But you also asked specifically about rural versus urban, and I wanted to play you another piece from Susan at the Association for Vermont Independent Colleges about that specific topic.    

Susan Stitely: I mean, I do think one of the trends nationally is people are not so interested in being in rural areas anymore. So, you know, they want to go to an urban area. So that's probably part of the demographic changes as well for Vermont. But there still are people who value this type of lifestyle that we have and want to come here and experience it.

Landmark College.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR

Andy Davis: Well, there it is. I wonder if she's basing that anecdotally or if she's expressing it, you know, from something expressed in college applications, or ...

Amy Kolb Noyes: Well, maybe another piece of tape from Richard Schneider will help me answer that question.

Richard Schneider: Rural America is dying. So this is the fourth year now that more students, 18-year-olds, have grown up in cities than in rural America. And we don't know what that means for us yet, I don't think. Like when they come to this beautiful Northfield with one blinking light. Or, you know, Putney or Bennington or you name it, other than Burlington. Will they say, like, there's nothing here for me? I mean, we talk about being outside and fly fishing and mountain biking and snowshoeing and skiing. But the kids in the cities are not doing those things. So what does that mean for our high-quality values-centered small colleges?

Andy Davis: Yeah, well, I'll say it again: I'm not feeling better. [LAUGHTER] I still love life here. And, you know, both of my children are now in their mid-20s, and they're still here and committed to Vermont, it seems. But when I think about the huge national demographic, I can see, you know, maybe this is part of our diversity challenge in Vermont.

Amy Kolb Noyes: One more bite for you to hear that speaks a little more about that lack of diversity. I'm sorry, it doesn't put a big light at the end of the tunnel.

Andy Davis: I'm not looking for the light anymore. [LAUGHTER]

Amy Kolb Noyes: Here's one more thought, though, on lack of diversity.

Susan Stitely: Given the atmosphere in our country, we now have international students who are afraid to come to this country. So not only are we losing our own population, we’re losing the international population that was coming here.

Amy Kolb Noyes: And that's Susan Stitely from AVIC again.

Andy: Well, my only comment on that is that is one tragic development that I certainly didn't see coming. I mean, we are, let's face it — America, we are an international community. And the thought that we've somehow pulled up the welcome mat is one of the saddest things I think I've witnessed.

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE “STINGER”]

Amy Kolb Noyes: Andy, thank you so much, you’ve been such a great question-asker.

Andy Davis: Well thank you, and I really do think this is valuable. Your whole project is super valuable, and I just wish you well with it.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Thank you.

Angela Evancie: So far we’ve been talking about the problems that colleges are facing – specifically, forces that are outside of schools’ control. But there are some institutions that have created their own problems, at least when it comes to finances.

Matthew Derr: Some of the institutions that I think will really struggle in the next 10 years are those that made decisions around their physical plants as a way of becoming more competitive in relationship to their perceived – maybe not even their real – peer group of colleges.

Amy Kolb Noyes: That’s Matthew Derr again, the president of Sterling College. What he’s talking about there are schools that have taken on a lot of debt in order to build things to attract more students. That could be fancy new dorms, or buildings to house new programs. The hope is that the investment pays off. But Derr says some of the colleges that have closed or are in trouble have just taken on more debt than they can afford. For context, here are some numbers.

Matthew Derr: The Sterling College example would be that our debt per student is about $5,000. Well, the debt for some of the colleges that are closing is $50,000 a student.

Amy Kolb Noyes: But that’s not to say that Derr thinks schools at risk should be apathetic.

Matthew Derr: The reality is that that is a call for more innovation, more forward thinking, some risk-taking on the part of these institutions. 

Angela Evancie: So next up, we move from problems to solutions. What are schools doing to face up to these challenges?

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Cassie's question

Cassie Major: My name is Cassie Major. I live in Barre, Vermont. I had just wondered and seen many things in the news about small colleges in Vermont and wondered how other small liberal colleges, much like Goddard College, where I used to live in Plainfield, are surviving and working through this process. That sounded rather wordy. 

[LAUGHTER. “BEEP” RE-TAKE SOUND EFFECT]

Cassie Major.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Cassie Major: My name is Cassie Mjor. I live in Barre, Vermont. And I’m wondering what small colleges are doing to help themselves survive in this state of Vermont?

Angela Evancie: Cassie Major is our final question-asker.

Cassie Major: I’m a retired educator, taught 32 years, ended my career up at Barre Town School, but I lived in Plainfield, so I was aware of Goddard. So as an educator who's been on several state-level boards, I just am concerned that Vermont has enough opportunities for students to access education. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: Shall we dive right in, Angela Evancie? 

Angela Evancie: Yeah, let's do it.

Amy Kolb Noyes: OK. So, you specifically asked about Goddard. Before we get there I'd like to talk about how some of the other colleges are taking steps to weather the storm.

Cassie Major: You know, legally, I’ll do the disclaimer: I have been a financial contributor to Goddard over the years, so that was, kind of just threw it in there. But I do have a concern for the whole rest of the state.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Well, that's an amazing, an amazing comment, because one of the things that Goddard and others are doing is having fundraising campaigns. One, for example, is Bennington College. They are raising money for student scholarships by selling art that's been donated to the college. And I have the interim college president, Isabelle Roche, talking about that. I'm going to play a little clip and see what you think about that.

Bennington College interim president Isabelle Roche.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR

Isabelle Roche: We launched a program that's called “Art for Access.” Building on Bennington's really strong legacy in the visual arts, whereby people are giving art to the college to be sold, when it's right, with the proceeds going for scholarships for students. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: So leaning into fundraising is one way that some of our Vermont colleges are planning their way out of what is mostly a demographic dip, but also a change in people's perception of the value of a college education.

Cassie Major: Yeah, I know. I've always been a proponent of vocational education, too. I mean, we need those plumbers, those electricians, those car mechanics, you know, all of those, too. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: And those are good paying jobs in Vermont, too. Yeah. So that I've found through my reporting that the schools that are most at risk are the small colleges that don't have a large endowment to fall back on. And if they aren't attracting any donors, they're relying on tuition to stay afloat. And when the number of students drops, they may not have any way to make up for that lost income. 

So leaning into the mission, that can also be a way to attract students. And one of the schools that’s doing that is Landmark College. Are you familiar with Landmark? 

Cassie Major: Oh yes. Yes.

Amy Kolb Noyes: All right. So for people who don't know, Landmark College is a school in Putney. It is for students with learning differences such as autism and dyslexia and ADHD. The president of that college is Peter Eden. And he says some schools get less selective about students when their numbers start to go down and some schools offer up more grants and scholarships to discount the tuition price to attract more students. But that's not what they're doing at Landmark. 

Peter Eden: What we've chosen to do is, is be resolute in controlling the discount rate and being selective, so that we have the highest quality campus irrespective of the number of students. Now, what we've done also is we've intentionally invested in ways to generate revenue by fulfilling our mission, I would say, outside of New England. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: So specifically, he says they're actually looking at trying to open up another campus, eventually, out west.

Landmark College president Peter Eden.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR

Peter Eden: We know we need to be highly intentional about reaching these students elsewhere because of the shrinking New England demographic.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Another possibility is rather than building out more physical plants is to just offer more where you are. Right? So that's kind of what Saint Michael's College is working on. Saint Michael's College President Lorraine Sterritt says her college is also leaning into its mission. But rather than expanding geographically, it's growing the number of academic majors that they offer at their Colchester campus.

Lorraine Sterritt: So for example, we have had a sociology major forever, and now we're adding a criminology major. So it's something that is still very much based in our core strength. But taking a slightly different slant — I would say a slightly more applied direction.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Lorraine Sterritt is fairly new to Saint Michael's College. And she says that that willingness to evolve was one of the things that attracted her to come here. 

Lorraine Sterritt: So I would say it was a combination of strong academics and the willingness to move with the times, because we can't just be stuck in the past. We have to move with the times — not only to preserve the college, but also to serve our students well, because the world is changing very, very rapidly. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: Another school that's in close proximity to St. Mike's and similar in size is Champlain College, over in Burlington. They have an interim president right now, Laurie Quinn, and she says reinvention like they're talking about a little bit over at St. Mike's with the majors, reinvention is part of that school's story, its history. And she thinks it's really important right now to keep that going. 

Laurie Quinn: The stereotype in higher education is one of longstanding tradition. And we're a little more restless at Champlain. We like to reinvent. And so the reinvention from a two-year school to a four-year school, the introduction of master's degrees and being early on, in the early 90s in adult and online education, was also very powerful for us.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Being nimble, I think, is something that is a common theme here. 

Cassie Major: Oh, yes. Yes. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: And one of the things that they're looking at now is micro-credentials. Have you heard anything about micro-credentials? 

Cassie Major: Hmm. No.

Amy Kolb Noyes: So it's a very insider-y term that just basically means a certificate program instead of a degree. So it could be for someone like an online learner who is going back to school to update their skills for a change in occupation.

Laurie Quinn: The new data about how many career changes folks are facing in the course of a normal working life has really prompted us to look closely at what does the student need in order to be a successful professional over the long haul. And so for that reason, the shorter term credentials are very much a part of our next five years.

Amy Kolb Noyes: So I have one more school I want to talk to you about before we get to Goddard. And that is Middlebury. So, when Laurie Quinn was talking about schools that are steeped in tradition, you think of elite schools like Middlebury, at least I do. But in its own way, Middlebury is also catering to older learners. Here's what President Laurie Patton had to say.

Laurie Patton: The interesting thing about Middlebury is we have almost as many graduate students in any given year as undergrads, but because they are separated by both time and space, the freshness and focus and intensity of the liberal arts and sciences undergrad experience isn't compromised. So we kind of feel like we have the best of both worlds.

Middlebury College.
Credit John Billingsley / VPR File

Amy Kolb Noyes: So she's talking about programs like Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English and their Summer Language Schools. And the language schools are a good example of the way they're partnering with other colleges. They've just brought Bennington on to be a partner. So they'll be offering some summer language schools down in Bennington. And I have one more clip for you from Laurie Patton. She's talking about a different kind of partnership. One with the host community: The town of Middlebury. And this seems particularly important in Vermont, I think. 

Laurie Patton: It's really remarkable to think of a town as kind of a fellow traveler with a college. That's different than benefiting from what a college can offer. So I think the more that people can think of themselves as supporters or fellow travelers with a college, the more creative they will be about what they can do to keep a college viable. 

Amy Kolb Noyes: So you mentioned you've lived in a college town in Plainfield. So what do you know about Goddard right now? What do you know about its current situation? 

Cassie Major: Well, I've seen the, you know, that they just put out about their fundraising and hoping to obtain that by the fiscal year.

Amy Kolb Noyes: So this is a really super interesting situation, to me anyway. Goddard was put on probation by the New England Commission of Higher Education in September 2018. There were two reasons: One was governance and the other was finances. And right after that, President Bernard Bull took over. The college was operating with a $1 million deficit, but they have since balanced their budget. As you said, they just launched that fundraising campaign. And the goal for that money is to build cash reserves, and also to prove to the accreditation agency that they are on solid financial footing or at least getting there.

Bernard Bull: One of the key pieces for us is to do something that every individual has to do to be responsible for their finances. We have to live within our means. That if you have a certain amount of pay coming in from your job, you have to be living at that amount or less. 

Cassie Major: Having, like I said, being a citizen in Plainfield and a voter there, I've known that Goddard has risen out of the phoenix fire many times, and will wish it the best to do that this time as well.

In conclusion

Angela Evancie: So there are lots of different answers to Cassie’s question about what schools are doing in the face of declining enrollment and financial hardship. But for Goddard, like we just heard from Bernard Bull, the path forward involves a pretty simple approach: Live within your means.

Amy Kolb Noyes: Goddard is arguably in the most precarious position of all of Vermont’s remaining independent colleges. But Bull says it’s not just a matter of fixing your finances. You’ve got to keep the spirit of the place alive.

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Bernard Bull: It's not really healthy to just focus upon, “What do we need to do to survive?” I think we need to have a climbing-a-mountain versus climbing-out-of-a-hole type of vision here. And that calls for constant reinvention and re-creation and experimentation, because the world is constantly changing.

Angela Evancie: For Goddard, and the rest of Vermont’s independent colleges, time will tell. Remember that the Northeast is a little bit further down the so-called “demographic cliff” than other parts of the country. So how we respond will inevitably become an example — of what to do, or what not do.

Amy Kolb Noyes: For some Vermont colleges, their efforts may eventually prove to be too little, too late. But, as they say, they’re giving it the old college try.

Thanks to Diana Clark, Andy Davis and Cassie Major for the great questions. Amy Kolb Noyes' reporting for this episode was made possible by a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.

As always, if you have questions about Vermont that you want us to answer, head to bravelittlestate.org. While you’re there you can vote on the question you want us to tackle next.

Our editor is Lynne McCrea and our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music by Blue Dot Sessions. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from Chris Albertine.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. How can you support the show? Head to bravelittlestate.org/donate to become a sustaining member of our station. We can’t do this work without you.