Southern Vermont College located in Bennington, Vermont became the latest small New England college to announce that it is closing its doors.
President David Rees Evans said the decision came after the New England Commission of Higher Education in January caught college officials off guard with the news that it was considering withdrawing accreditation based on the college's finances. The college has spent years bouncing back from a pair of financial setbacks and has worked to trim a deficit that recently totaled $2 million.
The accreditation announcement prompted college officials to halt the search for new students “in the heart of recruitment season,” Evans said. While putting the brakes on recruitment was “the right thing to do,” he said, “What that did was effectively doom us.”
At its Jan. 25 meeting, NECHE voted to ask Southern Vermont to show cause why it shouldn’t be placed on probation or have its accreditation withdrawn. NECHE also said it would take up the matter at its Feb. 28 meeting, noting that the college risked not meeting its standard for institutional resources.
Evans said NECHE’s announcement forced the college to lower enrollment projections by 90 students, from 365 to 275. Southern Vermont currently enrolls 332 students, down from a peak of about 500 in 2012.
He said trustees, faculty members and other advisers, meeting on Feb. 22, decided that without a larger freshman class, they didn’t see “a financial way forward with the college,” the Bennington Banner reported. In a letter to campus, Evans said the board on Friday voted “with sincere regret” to close the college at the end of the spring semester. On Saturday, he said, the college received word that NECHE had indeed voted to withdraw its accreditation effective Aug. 31.
In an interview, Evans said the move to halt recruiting came out of fear that if Southern Vermont closed, it risked lawsuits from stranded and prospective students, much like Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, which closed suddenly last April and is the subject of a lawsuit, filed in November, by former students who alleged that college officials misrepresented how dire the college's finances were.
While NECHE officials had visited in October, Evans said, they postponed action on accreditation. Then, in January, officials said NECHE was considering action on Southern Vermont’s accreditation. “That was the first time they said anything about the possibility of withdrawing accreditation, which is to say the leadership team were pretty surprised by that, frankly,” he said.
Barbara Brittingham, NECHE’s president, said that while “individual actions” in the case may have caught Southern Vermont officials off guard, “the fact that the commission would be very concerned would not necessarily be a surprise.”
Evans said that in the wake of the Mount Ida closure, “I do think that the standard of scrutiny is changed.” Accreditors like NECHE are feeling pressure from states to raise an alarm before colleges’ finances reach a critical stage. “I think NECHE is frankly squeezed between [states] and the schools that they’re accrediting.”
For her part, Brittingham agreed. “I think there are higher expectations than in the past, and I think the commission feels that,” she said.
Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, said accreditors like NECHE “do seem to be looking more closely at institutions, and it is kind of a catch-22 -- it raises alarm bells about the institution,” which can hasten its demise. Accreditors “have to do their job, but it creates problems for the institutions.”
She noted that another small Vermont college, the College of St. Joseph, faces a tight NECHE deadline to improve its finances or risk losing accreditation. Such arrangements may hold colleges accountable, but they can also hasten their closure.
“I understand they have to protect the students,” Stitely said of NECHE, “but it also causes some harm in advance, because people are more skeptical” of colleges once they're on call. “It’s a double-edged sword.”