POULTNEY — When Green Mountain College closed last year, it marked yet another loss for Vermont’s higher education community.
In 2019, College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Southern Vermont College in Bennington closed as well.
That same year, Marlboro College announced its programs, students and faculty would essentially be absorbed by Emerson College in Boston. Sale of the campus was finalized earlier this summer.
In 2018, Goddard College was placed on probation by New England Commission of Higher Education as consequence of financial instability.
Burlington College closed its doors in 2016.
For all of them, the reasons were the same: The combination of declining enrollment and increasing expenses was unsustainable — a symptom of Vermont’s shifting, aging demographics.
Last month, GMC, the 155-acre property in the heart of Poultney, containing more than two dozen buildings, including a gym, residence halls, an indoor pool, several single-family homes and a $5.8 million wood-fueled biomass plant, changed ownership.
Founded in 1834, the former college was Poultney’s largest employer until its closure.
The buyer, Shoreham resident and entrepreneur Raj Peter Bhakta, has said he plans to turn the campus into a work college focusing on sustainable agriculture that will produce a new crop of Vermont entrepreneurs and help solve the state’s demographic woes. And he wants to do it without forcing students to incur any debt.
“We’re looking to solve that by sending out kids who are going to lead the revival of Vermont by graduating chocked full of skills, chocked full of optimism and vim and vigor, and without debt,” Bhakta told WCAX Monday.
Bhakta is the founder of WhistlePig Whiskey. He currently runs Bhakta Farms, a farm/distillery operation with locations in Shoreham, Florida and France.
Speaking to Vermont Public Radio last week, he said he believes his entrepreneurial acumen gives him an advantage in higher education.
“The challenge isn’t making a tomato or producing a pound of beef or even making, you know, a bottle of wine,” he said. “The challenge is actually selling it profitably. And that’s what I think I bring to the table that nobody else in higher education is really doing in this country. There are no real entrepreneurs from the business side that are connecting making it to selling it.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Bhakta suggested his farm in Shoreham might be part of his new college’s work school model.
“I see the college and Bhakta Farms and everything that we produce being integrally related,” he said.
But is Bhakta’s vision an innovative step forward or simply a sleek repackaging of an existing product?
Matthew Derr, president of Sterling College in Craftsbury Center, sees similarities and differences.
The small college with a student enrollment capped at 125 has, according to Derr, one of the oldest sustainable agriculture programs in the country.
“The nature of work programs in higher education, that’s long established, that’s not a radical idea,” he said, explaining that Sterling has been a federally recognized work college for more than 20 years.
“What is more radical, and I think what Sterling is really doing sort of at a leading edge, is the integration of what students learn through work with their studies.”
Specifically, students are focused on degrees in agriculture and working in agriculture.
In addition, all students living on campus contribute to the work of the college. Their labor helps reduce cost of their education.
Following GMC’s closure, Derr said a number of faculty, staff members and students have migrated to Sterling.
Derr emphasized that, despite the turbulence of the past several years, “Vermont does actually have thriving colleges.”
He said all the bad press has made it difficult on the small colleges that are still here.
“Raj enters into a moment in time where all of these colleges feel challenged by both COVID and the last couple of years,” Derr said. “But what is exciting about the way in which innovation can happen, it doesn’t necessarily have to all come from business. It can come from higher education, and they are good examples of that.”
He said there is “absolutely” room for innovation within the sphere of agricultural education in Vermont.
“I think, what’s being described so far is pretty different than what we’re doing here at Sterling,” Derr said this week. “We’ve been doing something for a long time that’s refined, and it has developed over time.”
While it will likely take several years for Bhakta to fully realize his vision, he told VPR he plans to launch a pilot program of about 30-50 students by next spring.
In his capacity as commissioner of the New England Commission of Higher Education, Derr explained that if Bhakta’s college plans to seek accreditation, it will take “multiple years and really careful planning” to meet those standards.
Derr said Bhakta’s suggestion that students might work on his farm in Shoreham is an established educational model. He cited the example of the General Motors Institute of Technology, today known as Kettering University, in Flint, Michigan.
“There is a tradition, there has been in higher education, colleges that have worked directly with businesses to prepare workforce for that business,” he said.
Derr said the challenge is making sure the jobs are there for students once they graduate.
“That’s a tricky thing to pull off.”
Steven Letendre is a former GMC professor now working as a private consultant.
He said he likes the idea of a hands-on curriculum that provides concrete skills for students “that are readily needed in the marketplace.”
While at GMC, Letendre was the director of the Renewable Energy and Ecological Design program.
“One of the hallmarks of that program was, we provided students, in addition to theory and academic training, we also provided opportunities for students to get hands-on practical skills,” he said.
Letendre said he likes the idea of sending students out into the world debt free.
“If there’s some model that would allow students to come out with minimal or no debt, that’d be amazing,” he said. “Whether he can pull that off, that’s another question.”
Yet Letendre said he remains hopeful.
“I wish him the best of luck. I think there’s some great concepts,” he said. “It is a challenging environment, higher ed, and hopefully he can bring some new, creative ideas.”
Looking toward GMC’s potential future, Derr said its mission will determine its success.
Previously, Derr was interim president of Antioch College in Ohio, where he led an effort to reopen the school and develop an undergraduate curriculum that focused on issues of sustainable agriculture and food systems.
He said the “pain and anxiety” surrounding Antioch’s closing was “real,” and it’s no different in Poultney.
“What that community will need from any future college that comes out of the Green Mountain College campus will be that true north of a really closely held mission and vision for its future that really catalyzes everybody to support it,” he said.