The Real Reason Small Colleges Fail

Burlington College, in Vermont, closed recently after years of financial and leadership problems.
June 08, 2016

The news that little Burlington College in Vermont was shutting down after more than 40 years is, I’m sure, without meaning or interest to virtually all collegebound students. That’s understandable, I guess. But as a nation and as a higher-education industry, our alternatives to large-scale higher education have just been reduced by a meaningful iota that should cause another slight tremble through the troposphere of academe.

I take Burlington College’s demise personally because I spent 25 years of my working life at two Vermont colleges that any number of times could have preceded Burlington, which closed its doors for good on May 27, into the grave.

I labored in the administrative trenches of Marlboro College for 19 years, from 1983 to 2002, in the middle of which Marlboro was down to 165 students and two paydays in the bank. After that, and after a two-year stint at an even more improbably diminutive institution, Montserrat College of Art, in Beverly, Mass., I became president of Sterling College, the smallest of all, in far northern Vermont, where I served from 2006 to 2012, through a recession that could have tipped the place over, irretrievably, at any moment.

Even now, I feel the stress of those years return whenever a small college succumbs, and I’m reminded how close it was for me and my institutions. What we had to do, and not do, to survive long enough to build strength, on top of sheer resiliency. So I want answers: How did this happen? Who was not paying attention? Who did not understand the fragility of the institution and the weight of their responsibility?

In many people’s minds, the demise of Burlington College, like a number of other small institutions recently shuttered or nearly so, reinforces the idea that such institutions are inherently frail, that their size renders them unsustainable. Conflating that stereotype with assumptions about academic quality, curricula, student success, and institutional history leads to a conclusion that small colleges are suspect — they must be because they fail.

Of the 1,600 private nonprofit colleges and universities in the United States, almost 30 percent have enrollments of under 1,000 students. And though closings have amounted to less than one percent of private colleges, according to David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent College and Universities, a Moody’s Investors Services report last fall indicated that the pace appears to be increasing. As we know, when one of the more recognizable small institutions is threatened with closure — Sweet Briar, Mills, Antioch — and brought back from the brink, at least temporarily, there follows a flurry of new stories about small colleges and the economic peril they face.

But I can tell you from experience that if it were small size alone, if the diseconomy of scale were that overwhelming, then all these places would have expired years ago and only the behemoths of our industry, the land-grant universities, the flagship campuses, and the elite private colleges, would still exist.

In reality, the pressures on small colleges are broadly identical to those on large colleges. However, the tolerance for institutional error and institutional crisis is exponentially minuscule at the small, the tuition-driven, the experimental, the curricularly focused, and the relatively new.

I’m not privy to the details of Burlington’s slide to oblivion, but responsibility must lie, as at all colleges, with the board of trustees.

This is where the mistakes are made, years before the actual shutting of the doors, because small colleges don’t die in a moment. They linger, struggle. Presidents are let go. Others are hired. New trustees are hard to come by. Boards, weakened by years of tension and diminishing resources, find their members beginning to perform administrative tasks to help out. By the end, leadership is reduced to the intricacies of closure.

And all this happens at a time when a board’s expertise, history, and experience is most critically called for, if it exists. So the problem, compounded at smaller institutions where the margins for error are tiny, is not so much lack of money, which often seems to happen all of a sudden, but a long-term lack of professionalism, independence, and leadership at the board level.

When chaos strikes larger institutions, their sheer bulk and institutional depth helps overcome or simply absorb issues. For the smaller places, the effect can be show-stopping.

Luckily, most of the time crises do not result in closure. Instead, institutional change for the better happens. Steps are taken. Programs developed. New support is found. That’s how small colleges emerge from their adolescence, after 50 or 60 years of struggle, into something approaching, in another 50 years, maturity.

The fact that Bernie Sanders’s wife, Jane, was president of Burlington when it purchased what amounted to an entirely new campus in 2010 has fueled this story. But small colleges frequently take big chances to significantly alter their way forward, to leap out of the holes they think they are in, often using a springboard of big plans and real estate and money they do not have. Sometimes it works. I’ve tried it myself, but have also been held back from excessive risk by more than one board. (In Jane Sanders’s case, she left the college in 2011, soon after the property deal was agreed upon.)

Small colleges worry as much about their missions as their incomes. We have students to serve. Budgets to stretch like Silly Putty. Communities to engage. Regulatory agencies to appease. Making money, however vital and practical, is just one of a number of equally critical concerns … until, of course, it becomes the only critical concern.

And that’s what you read about, the short history of an institution weakened by poor leadership and felled by fiscal blunder, instead of the awful warping and final disappearance of a mission, a curriculum, the disillusionment of generations of alumni, and the bitter disappointment of a community at the lost potential everyone believed in, suddenly dissipated, not to return.

The dust from the exodus out of Burlington College had not yet settled when Dowling College, on Long Island, announced its closing, followed by St. Catharine College, in Kentucky. Within months we’ll no doubt learn of another small college under scrutiny and in distress, and the story and lessons of Burlington College will slip from public notice, except locally, where we will be pondering things a good while longer. After all, 13 of the now 16 independent colleges in Vermont have undergraduate populations of between 125 and 700 students.

And what about that slight tremor through the troposphere of higher education?

Gone, by now. Or soon.

The industrialization of undergraduate learning isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the power of American higher education has always been in its energy, its unique — even wild — diversity, and its almost biological integration with its town, city, or region. When a small college dies, all that is brought into question — and higher education is diminished, iota by iota.

Will Wootton is a former president of Sterling College, in Vermont, and the author of a forthcoming memoir, Good Fortune Next Time: Life, Death, Irony and the Administration of Very Small Colleges (Dryad Press, Fall 2017).