The announcement last month that Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, will shut down after the spring semester has left the school’s undergraduates scrambling to figure out what’s next for them.
Two Maine schools, Unity College in Unity and the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, are trying to help. They are among seven colleges around the country that are offering special transfer opportunities to students from Green Mountain College, a small private college focused on environmental liberal arts.
“The idea is that each college created a teach-out plan, to help students as much as possible,” said Melik Khoury, the president of Unity College. “At Unity College, our program is very similar to Green Mountain College. We are trying to make the transition easier. We are one of seven options willing to go above and beyond to help students graduate at the pace they are at.”
A team from Unity went to Poultney last week to talk to Green Mountain students, spending a day and a half at the school and talking to them about how the Maine institution could help, Khoury said. They found a student body still coming to terms with the January announcement from Green Mountain officials that they could not find a way toward financial stability and would close after 185 years.
“I think a lot of the students are a little overwhelmed right now,” Khoury said when asked if students seemed interested in what Unity College has to offer them. “I think that ‘interest’ might be the wrong word. I think they’re trying to grapple with the reality that they will have to be at a different school. That’s hard.”
A team from College of the Atlantic also went to Vermont last week to meet with students. President Darron Collins said Thursday that it is “horrible” to see a small college close.
“It’s very tough on the students, alumni, staff, faculty and the community,” he said. “And within the higher-education landscape we want to see our competitors thrive and prosper, not go out of business. So it’s a hard day when something like this happens.”
College of the Atlantic and Green Mountain College both belong to the EcoLeague consortium, a group of six liberal arts colleges dedicated to modeling sustainability and to ecologically focused education. A transfer and teach-out agreement between the schools should allow Green Mountain students who want to finish at College of the Atlantic make a smooth transition, college officials said.
According to Inside Higher Ed, a digital media company that reports on higher education, Green Mountain College is the latest small, private New England school to face hard times. Also in January, Hampshire College in Massachusetts announced that it was not sure it would admit new students for the fall semester.
Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts, said last December that it would close at the end of the academic year, joining Mount Ida College and Atlantic Union College, both outside Boston, which also announced their impending closure last year.
New England has particular demographic challenges that pose problems for colleges, according to Inside Higher Ed, including a drop in the number of high school graduates in the region and declining demand from students that is expected to continue for the next decade. Even though Green Mountain College, burdened by a small endowment, tried to stay the course by carving out its environmental niche, adding graduate programs and refinancing its debt, it couldn’t make it work, the media company reported.
Khoury said that when colleges close, it hurts everyone.
“An average of 11 colleges [in the country] are closing a year now,” he said. “There is no benefit from Green Mountain closing. It hurts us all. Just a couple of months ago, Unity was playing Green Mountain in sports — this is disheartening.”
He said that even though Unity College remains dependent on tuition dollars it receives from students, it has been diversifying its revenue stream by adding online students, auxiliary services and more so that it will avoid the fate of some of the other, unluckier, small, private schools in New England.
“Unity College is on a solid financial footing,” Khoury said. “We’ve actually been counter-culture for the last 10 years. We have grown. We are lucky — we’re not over-leveraged. We are not discounted. We are operating in the black. I’m not saying we are there yet, but we are in a position where financially we are very, very sound.”
Collins said that the College of the Atlantic also is in a good position, with a robust endowment and strong philanthropic support for a college of its size, and with enrollment steadily climbing over the past decade toward the school’s 350-student cap. The school also is preparing to begin construction on its first major academic facility since the 1980s.
“We feel very good about our future,” he said. “And [about] our ability to weather the challenging demographic trends and shifting attitudes toward higher ed.”