hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial April 2019



Disappearing local colleges pose questions for future


As scandals go, this one was stunning in its scope yet somehow unsurprising.
In mid-March, federal prosecutors accused nearly three dozen wealthy parents across the country of making six- and seven-figure payments to buy their children admission to top-ranked colleges from Yale to Stanford. The parents, authorities say, paid a corrupt educational consultant who then used some of the money either to bribe college officials or to have students’ answers fixed on standardized tests.

The criminal behavior was brazen, but it also underscored just how much value and status a brand-name education confers in the upper tiers of American society. As many commentators pointed out, lots of wealthy families, without breaking any law, already spend heavily to groom their children for elite colleges – by investing in test preparation courses, writing coaches, and even by making hefty donations to particular institutions (with no quid pro quo, of course).
But at the same time the college admissions scandal was making national news, the headlines closer to home were telling a different story about the state of higher education. Southern Vermont College in Bennington and College of St. Joseph in Rutland both announced in March that they’ll shut down at the end of the current academic year. They joined Green Mountain College in Poultney, which already was set to close this summer.

As our cover story this month details, the loss of three colleges in our corner of Vermont is the result of financial pressures that built up over the past few years. All three colleges had either depleted their endowments or taken on substantial debts (or both), and their financial situations quickly grew dire as enrollment lagged.

There could be more such losses in our future. Across the Northeast, small private colleges are struggling to maintain enrollment as the pool of college-age applicants in the region has begun to decline after years of growth. Demographic trends show the pool of students will shrink even more dramatically in the latter half of the next decade

With local colleges dying for lack of tuition-paying students while wealthy families from the nation’s power centers spend lavishly in pursuit of top-tier schools, it seems a fair question to ask whether we are moving swiftly toward a two-tiered system of higher education – with elite private colleges for the academically stellar and the affluent, and public colleges for nearly everyone else.

To be fair, most students at top-ranked colleges still are admitted based on merit, despite last month’s scandal headlines. In our region, highly selective colleges like Williams and Skidmore attract bright, talented students from across the country, and their presence here is a huge plus.
But the region also needs to maintain good and varied college choices for students who aren’t in the running for top-tier schools, and those choices ought to allow for more individuality, specialization and mentoring than the typical state university can provide. Given this need, losing Green Mountain, with its focus on environmental sustainability, and Southern Vermont, with its mission of serving students who might otherwise never make it to college, is a tough blow.
The lives of young people sometimes are transformed by one or two inspiring teachers, and elite colleges don’t have a monopoly on those kinds of teachers. Some of these transformative experiences no doubt were set in motion by the three local colleges that are about to close. Our region will be diminished by their loss.

April 2019 Editorial Cartoon © Hill Country Observer


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