POULTNEY, Vt. — Liberal arts colleges in Vermont are struggling.
While some are fighting through probation to stay open, including the College of St. Joseph and Goddard College, others have already announced they will be closing.
In January, Green Mountain College officially announced it will cease operations at the end of the spring semester. Southern Vermont College joined them earlier this month, with both citing declining enrollment as the main reason for their financial problems.
The loss of the institutions has left alumni and students angry and disappointed, but the effects of their closings go far beyond those who attend.
Losing the schools means losing hundreds of students who buy groceries and gas in town and losing the faculty families in towns struggling with their own population declines.
As these schools close, communities like Poultney, where Green Mountain College is located, are left to cope with the loss of economic and social engines.
Reasons for decline
Green Mountain College President Robert Allen said the declining enrollment of his college and others has no singular cause.
Contributing factors include a decline in population across New England and an overall shift toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
In a world where a liberal arts education is so expensive, many students aren’t willing to risk studying a subject that lacks a clear path to a career.
“What’s happening in the marketplace is people shifting to programs with a direct path to employment,” he said. “We started doing that, but we ran out of runway.”
The rural setting can also be a hard sell.
Green Mountain has set up teach-out agreements with other schools, such as Paul Smith’s College, Prescott College and others, that will offer their students comparable majors and financial aid packages.
Although students should be able to continue their educations, the path is not so clear for faculty and staff.
The college employs 40 full-time faculty and about 60 staff members and contracted out about another 50 positions for building and grounds maintenance and cafeteria work.
“We’re far and away the biggest employer in Poultney,” Allen said.
Many employees want to stay in the area, but with virtually no other teaching institutions nearby, professors will have a hard time continuing to teach unless they relocate.
Allen has been trying to help and has been writing letters of recommendation for any who want them. Prescott College has offered a number of teachers online positions, so they can stay where they are and teach remotely.
Some workers at Poultney businesses expressed confidence in the future, because they do not rely on students or faculty.
Jeannie Patch, a longtime bartender at the Ole Hampton House Tavern in Hampton, called the closing a shame, but said the days when Green Mountain students would trek to the Washington County side of the border for a few extra late-night hours of partying are gone anyway.
Local families have been the key to the business’ success for several years now.
“We’re not open late anymore anyways,” Patch said. “I have high chairs in here now.”
Patty McWilliams, owner of Hermit Hill Books on Main Street in Poultney, said she’s waiting to see the full effects of the closure. Summer won’t be any different, but this September she’ll find out how big the impact is.
She hopes something good for the town will come of the campus. She and Patch said they would like to see it stay as a college in some capacity, because that would keep a younger population in town.
The effect of the closing can already be seen in one Main Street storefront. The organic co-op, Stone Valley Community Market, recently held a vote on its board’s recommendation to dissolve.
The co-op board cited in a Facebook post an already poor financial situation, exacerbated by losing a large partner in Green Mountain College, as the reason for the vote. The market did not respond to The Post-Star‘s request to attend the final members meeting when the vote was held.
Students, faculty and staff will no longer buy gasoline and groceries in town, but the closing will have wider effects.
Timothy and Brooke Hughes-Muse own and operate Laughing Child Farm in Pawlet, Vermont. Both are alumni of Green Mountain College and elected to stay in the area after graduation to work and raise a family.
They’ve been growing sweet potatoes on their farm since 2012, and Timothy said they’ve hired students from the college to work on the farm seasonally that entire time.
Allen said the sustainable agriculture program had become the second-most popular major at the college, and the work and internships students did on local farms made up a pivotal part of the curriculum.
The sweet potato harvest coincided with students’ return to Poultney for the start of the school year, which made students, especially those in the sustainable agriculture program, ideal workers for the farm.
Timothy Hughes-Muse said now that he and his wife can no longer rely on young and fit workers to be around every fall, they’ve had to start exploring other options.
“We’ve been looking into the H2A visa program, which brings migrant workers up for seasonal work,” Hughes-Muse said.
He said he is going to try to find local people for this year’s harvest, and if he finds enough help, he won’t pursue the visa program, but he needs options.
Several other farms in the area that are owned and operated by alumni are in the same predicament, according to Hughes-Muse.
“Everybody will be like us and see what comes down the pike,” he said.
The area will also miss out on the other graduates who might in the future have stuck around, the way he did. That could have lasting effects on the community.
“Even though most aren’t connected to the college in everyday life, it affected the community every day in a subtle way,” Hughes-Muse said, “but I think they will adapt. It’s what Vermonters do.”
Choosing to stay
One member of the faculty who has decided to remain in the area is Steven Letendre, a professor of economics and environmental studies.
Letendre has been teaching at the college for 21 years and has lived in Middletown Springs, Vermont, for 15 of those.
He is looking for roles both inside and outside of academia, and with prior experience as an energy consultant, he is confident he will be able to stay.
He has worked with nonprofits, governmental agencies and other academic institutions in the past and will also remain as an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School.
But others are having to move to find opportunities, he said.
The closing was not a surprise, he said, and he thought the administration had done a good job in finding partner schools, so students can continue their studies.
“Things change,” Letendre said. “It’s gotten expensive and state schools are often much cheaper. It used to be you knew you had a job after graduation, but the world has changed and parents and students are less likely to make such a huge investment.”
Alumni and current students of the college expressed disappointment in the college’s closing and anxiety about what will come next.
Brian Bearor, director of the Glens Falls YMCA and a member of the Class of 1991, said he has many great memories of Green Mountain. The community is losing a great resource of a four-year school within easy driving distance, he said.
He owes the opportunity of landing his current position to the experience he had managing intramurals and other activities at the college, he said.
Bearor said he is concerned with how the nearby communities will cope, since many college employees live in the immediate area and businesses will lose out out on moneymaking events, such as the college’s homecoming weekend.
“One point I think can’t be lost is the stigma of an academic institution that’s been around since the 1800s closing due to a dwindling population,” Bearor said. “It’s not a good thing for the region.”
Sophomores Meg Scognamiglio from Scotia and Derrob Hagy-Weatherbee from Williamstown, Massachusetts, said they were devastated to be losing what felt like a second home at Green Mountain.
Scognamiglio said she had been contemplating a transfer anyway, because the college lacked the science focus she was now interested in, but if she had the choice now, she would choose to stay at Green Mountain because it was “family.”
Both students said it had been no secret the school was struggling, but they wished the administration had been more transparent about the financial difficulties, because it would have given them a chance to help fix the problem.
Hagy-Weatherbee also said he thought the school might have stretched itself too thin by offering programs that didn’t pertain to the school’s mission of sustainability.
They acknowledged the difficulties of attracting students to a small and expensive school when STEM fields at cheaper institutions can look more desirable.
“STEM is on the rise,” Hagy-Weatherbee said, “but it’s at the expense of individuality. It’s important to be well-rounded and learn about the arts.”
Cultural and economic center
Author Brian Alexander knows what it’s like for a community to lose its economic engine.
Alexander wrote a book titled “Glass House” in which he chronicled the effects on his hometown, Lancaster, Ohio, of its economic and social core being removed.
In Lancaster, a glass factory employed hundreds of people, on the factory line and as executives and managers. After a hostile takeover, many of the higher-ups were removed and the jobs left with them.
Alexander likened this loss to the one in Poultney, because not only will hundreds of young people no longer be around, but the town will also be losing the faculty, administration and support staff.
Loss of a town’s largest employer can do serious damage to its character, he said.
“If you think of the community as a big connected web,” Alexander said, “well you’ve now poked a giant hole in it. I don’t think it matters if it’s a factory or a college — when that goes away, it’s a big hit.”
Life can be difficult for those who remain after the loss of an institution, especially in rural areas. The area has been home for many families for decades and holds all of their social capital.
Saying that families can pick up and move to a place with more jobs does not consider the network of support people develop in a community.
“It’s not just your money capital but your social capital as well,” Alexander said. “If you pack up and leave and you wind up in Charlotte, North Carolina, you’re giving up a lot of other benefits.”
But he was optimistic and said the town wasn’t necessarily doomed.
“I hope for its sake that there does get to be some sort of economic driver in town because I think we need small towns to thrive,” he said.
Letendre agreed the closing could offer an opportunity to another organization to move in and put the campus to use. He said he was hopeful the administration was already exploring options for a takeover that could mitigate the effects of losing the school.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Letendre said. “I do believe that this happens to communities all over the country and they adapt to it and evolve.”