• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Green Mountain College

Another small college forced to close.

January 24, 2019
 
 

I never made a conscious decision to make this blog an obituary column for colleges, but as a colleague and a member of the profession, I think each one deserves to be noticed.

Add Green Mountain College, in Vermont, to the list of casualties this academic year.

As with Hampshire last week, I tip my cap to the leadership there for having the moral sense to avoid enticing new students to climb on board a sinking ship.  In a reputational business, there’s a rational fear of bad news becoming self-fulfilling, leading to a death spiral. That tends to mean that you don’t see conspicuous danger signs until the very end, at which point the end can seem abrupt. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  By that standard, higher ed administration is full of first-rate minds these days. When colleges start to spiral downward financially, the leadership has to convey both real urgency internally and convincing optimism externally.  It leads to a sort of Calvinist anxiety; successful colleges act a certain way, so that is how we will act, even if we know at some level that it’s acting. In the case of public colleges, that’s even more complicated, because the external audiences include legislators who control appropriations.  When faced with cuts or long-term flat funding, the most common rhetorical response is the future conditional: “if this continues, quality will be in jeopardy.” The future conditional is true, as far as it goes, but it tends to elide the damage that has already been done. That’s because noting the accumulated damage could lead legislators and donors to conclude that there’s no point in throwing good money after bad.  But it also tends to let them off the hook for years of neglect. Every year, the baseline moves down again, necessarily without acknowledgement. It’s in nobody’s short-term interest to point that out.

When the future conditional is abruptly replaced by the present and past tenses, the effect can be jarring.  

According to a Boston Globe account, GMC reached an agreement with Prescott College in Arizona to “hire some Green Mountain faculty, maintain student records, and allow students to complete their degrees there.” I don’t know what “some” means in that context, but I hope that employment casualties are relatively minimal. Moving from Vermont to Arizona is not a small endeavor or life change, so I imagine that not everybody could or would, but it’s better than nothing.  And I’m glad to see that student records will be preserved somewhere. A graduate applying for a job somewhere with an employer who verifies degrees shouldn’t be punished because the alma mater’s registrar’s office is gone. Neither should a student abandoned midway who’s trying to get transfer credits recognized.

As with Wheelock, Newbury, Mount Ida, and Hampshire, Green Mountain noted the unforgiving demographics of New England.  The part of the country that gave birth to American higher education as we know it isn’t producing or attracting enough students to maintain what it has built.  But it’s partially a tale of different sectors. New England’s elite institutions -- the Harvards of the world -- are, and will be, mostly fine. (The asterisk here is for Hampshire, which counted itself among the five colleges.)  Its public institutions have struggled pretty much forever, largely because states there saw the elite private colleges picking up the slack. As Governor Dukakis supposedly claimed, it was okay to underfund UMass because Harvard and MIT were already there.  Non-elite private colleges, though, are really up against it.

To really understand why, think like a parent.  Backbreaking tuition for an MIT may make sense; it’s one of the best in the world at what it does, and it opens doors few others can open.  Much more modest tuition for a local public college may make sense. But backbreaking tuition for a college that few people more than an hour away have heard of is a tough sell.  Some of them have survived on spectacularly high discount rates, but there are natural limits to that. As long as they’re afflicted by Baumol’s Cost Disease, and they don’t have national reputations or obvious programmatic hooks, they’ll get squeezed.  And even a programmatic hook is no guarantee. Green Mountain had a clear hook with environmental studies, but it wasn’t enough.

New England may be hitting this point first, but other regions are likely to follow.  The future conditional is starting to give way to the present. I hope the rest of us heed the warnings, so we don’t wind up relegated to the past.

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