Twelve years ago, when I founded Vermont College of Fine Arts by creating a new nonprofit and raising the resources to save the historic campus here in Montpelier, three nationally acclaimed graduate arts programs and around 100 jobs, I was not only the newest college president in Vermont, but also the youngest college president in the country.
Today, I am far from the youngest college president in the country, and next year, when my colleague and former mentor, Dr. Richard Schneider of Norwich University, retires, I will be the longest serving college president in the state. Over the past 12 years, I have also served as the governor’s appointment to the New England Board of Higher Education, and as the president of the Vermont Higher Education Council (twice) and as a commissioner on our regional accrediting body, the New England Commission on Higher Education.
Which is a long way of saying that I have had a bird’s eye view of a radically changing landscape for our region’s higher-education institutions.
There is no doubt we are in a time of deep, disruptive change in higher education. Some prognosticators are comparing now to the time after the Civil War, when as many as half the colleges closed because, in that case, men of typical college age had died in the war. In Vermont alone, we have seen four independent colleges close in just the last couple of years. Like many, I fear more change is to come.
Part of the challenge is an obvious one: demographics. There are fewer and fewer students of traditional college age, especially in New England. Part of the challenge, as well, is the zeitgeist in the country right now questions the value of a college education, despite the evidence to the contrary. For instance, the average undergraduate student graduates with under $30,000 of debt, or the price of a Volkswagen, yet earns, on average, $1 million more in income over their lifetime. Investors will struggle to find a more shrewd investment than that.
At the same time, colleges and universities need to innovate to adapt to a market that is saying there is less and less demand for essentially a 19th century model of education: rural, small and residential. At VCFA, the majority of our programs are low-residency, an idea borne out of the 1960s that has never been more relevant than now. Our students come together with faculty in intensive residencies for one week every six months. They then work one-on-one with an individual faculty from a distance over the ensuing semester. The result is both students and faculty in every degree program come to Vermont from all over the world. Unlike online education, programs like these give students the same lower cost and flexibility, while ensuring high academic standards and creating community and networking often absent from an online-only experience.
Whenever a college closes, especially for those of us in this tight-knit community, it’s like a death in the family. What I think has been missing from the conversation, though, is how much colleges are economic engines. The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “If you want to build a great community, start a college and wait 300 years.” When I hear the conversations among policymakers and others related to colleges in peril, I am struck by how colleges are thought of as mainly places where students go. And while we are right to focus on issues of student protection, higher education is also the third largest industry in our state. We employ thousands and thousands of Vermonters, in good jobs with good benefits. Not only are our students likely to stay and make Vermont their home, colleges, as employers, bring in diverse people who move here, have families and enrich our communities.
As I have had the opportunity to tell three governors now, if I told you that we were going to come from, say, California, take over an expensive property about to be closed, maintain historic buildings, employ 250 people in a clean industry and add good jobs every year, have an outsized cultural impact and an economic footprint in the ten of millions, you would come ask us to relocate here, wouldn’t you?
Well, a terrific and diverse higher-education community is already here. And the conversation we need to be having as Vermonters now is how we maintain that.
Thomas Christopher Greene is the founding president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.