College shows foresight with proactive merger
The recent announcement that Marlboro College has signed a letter of intent to merge with the University of Bridgeport was welcome news, albeit a bit surprising. Welcome, because it means that the college has found a path forward to help it survive and, hopefully, grow in future years.
Assuming the merger is completed, Marlboro will have avoided the fate suffered by other small Vermont colleges recently. Earlier this year, two schools in the area, Southern Vermont College in Bennington and Green Mountain College in Poultney, announced they were closing due to financial difficulties brought on by declining enrollment and other stresses. Another small graduate school in the area, the School for International Training in Brattleboro, has significantly altered its offerings in large part due to declining enrollment.
Despite the romance of a small college in a Vermont setting, demographics offer a cruel reality. Vermont is faced with declining student populations in its primary and secondary schools. That fact has led to a number of initiatives, like Act 46, to try to make schools and districts with declining enrollments more efficient and sustainable. The results remain to be seen. That declining student population has had a negative effect on colleges and universities in the region, too.
Marlboro College leaders have obviously recognized the trends and have acted to stabilize the school. A few years ago they moved their graduate program from downtown Brattleboro and consolidated it with the undergraduate program on the rural Marlboro campus. As part of that move they sold the downtown property that housed the graduate school. That was a belt-tightening move. But it was only one step in Marlboro’s path to sustainability.
For its part, the University of Bridgeport appears to be large enough and proactive enough to have avoided many of the difficulties faced by the small Vermont schools. Bridgeport had a growth spurt during the 2000s; was proactive in developing online alternatives to traditional learning; and has a reasonable endowment. Marlboro and Bridgeport would appear on the surface to not have many similarities, which could work to both schools’ advantage. Marlboro will offer a much different campus experience than Connecticut, and could serve as a recruiting advantage for Bridgeport, which has close access to large metropolitan areas in southern New England, New York, and beyond. Offering a small, bucolic Vermont setting as part of the college experience could be a big plus in attracting prospective students.
Bridgeport is to be commended for its vision as well. UB president Laura Skandera Trombley said in an interview published on UniversityBusiness.com, “It’s no secret that we have been losing liberal arts colleges for the past decade. We can either stand by and watch these places go out of business, or maybe it’s time to create a new model and make a statement that we want to preserve the diversity of higher education.”
What’s a few college students, more or less? While some might think the college closures or declining enrollments really don’t have much of an impact on their lives, that just isn’t the case. Local colleges bring in students and faculty who support local businesses with spending in stores and restaurants, and for services. Students often work part time or take part in internships that help local businesses operate. Many students end up staying in the area and become part of the community. When enrollment declines or a school has to shutter its doors the economy suffers.
But there’s more to lose than just economic activity. Colleges add to the quality of life in the region. They attract music, art, speakers, and more, things that contribute to the vitality of the area.
How this merger plays out in the long run remains to be seen, but the alternatives for Marlboro were not very pleasant to consider: Continued decline or possible closure. This merger gives the school a new model, as Trombley said, and a chance to continue its mission. Ultimately we all benefit from that.