Editor’s note: Vermont by Degrees is an ongoing series of commentaries by leaders in higher education that explores the challenges and innovations at schools across Vermont.

When I ponder the future of higher education in Vermont, images come to mind of the massive herding of thousands of turkeys to Boston, the turn-of-the-20th-century boom of cheese factories alongside railroad tracks in small Vermont villages, the modest beginnings of our state’s ski industry, and the ubiquitous “maple syrup for sale” signs along popular Green Mountain byways.

Perhaps it’s odd to link the state of our higher education system with turkeys, cheese, skiing and maple syrup, but as the new dean of the School of the American Farmstead at Sterling College, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between rural and urban communities. The so-called “rural-urban divide” is a relationship that farmers and other rural entrepreneurs have confronted for millennia. Negotiating that divide effectively can oftentimes mean the difference between economic survival or collapse, on both ends.

In rural New England, as in so many other parts of the world, we’re blessed with the riches of a land-based economy. We have the natural resources that are in demand in urban and peri-urban areas, along (with) the wits and wherewithal to transform those resources into usable, if not downright desirable, products. In turn, those cities have what we typically need to transform our entrepreneurial concepts into viable business models: demographics and dollars.

It is in this light that the Vermont agriculture and higher-education sectors intersect in their quest for economic viability. Our regional demographics make it clear that what we rural Vermonters have to offer — be it cheese or a cheesemaking certificate — is a high-quality product, but our local population base tends to be too thin to provide a sufficient number of takers. Therefore, we have to find creative ways in which to deliver the best of Vermont to those areas with higher-density demographics (or even other rural areas that don’t have what we offer), while also bringing those consumers to us. It’s the same strategy maple producers have followed for years: sometimes you send your bulk product elsewhere, and other times, you package it up in small, unique containers and let the buyers come to you.

With the announced closure of three higher-education institutions in Vermont this spring, it’s imperative that our remaining institutions adopt some of the tactics that farmers and other land-based entrepreneurs have long pursued: innovate in ways that forge stronger economic and social linkages between rural and urban communities. We need each other, and the successes that we find in those endeavors provide the social and economic capital that helps keep our beloved rural communities vibrant.

I know the impact of such failure firsthand. I spent 21 years at Green Mountain College and witnessed the demise of that historic institution, despite its nationally recognized brand, from the inside. Many of us had long feared the impact the closure of the college would inevitably have on Poultney and the surrounding region, and now our state is watching those ramifications unfold.

So, what is different about Sterling College? For years prior to joining the Sterling College community in January, I had been carefully watching the evolution of Sterling, usually with more than just a little envy. Backed by a faculty fully engaged and extraordinarily expert in experiential education, President Matthew Derr and his leadership team combined forces with Vermont-grown Chelsea Green Publishing to embark upon an innovative path for a (very) small college in rural New England, through the creation of a continuing-education program, the School of the New American Farmstead. It was a plan to tackle the demographic divide head-on by offering continuing-education courses in the small town of Craftsbury — taught not so much by traditional academics, but by proven and oftentimes illustrious practitioners, about two-thirds of whom are Chelsea Green authors.

Given the clear demographic trends and the challenges of its highly rural location, the avant-garde at Sterling saw that the School of the New American Farmstead could flip the higher-education model in three ways. Firstly, the audience to be served was the increasingly dominant population in Vermont — older Vermonters, not just traditional-aged college students. Secondly, continuing-education courses allow for a two-pronged marketing approach by offering what lifelong learners want and what professionals need. Finally, School of the New American Farmstead courses are relevant not just to locals but also to nontraditional learners in urban and suburban environments.

This approach runs counter to the typical inclination of most higher-education administrators facing economic peril: merge with another academic institution in order to save on administrative and infrastructure costs. However, the merger approach does not address the precipitous (and long-predicted) decline of traditional-aged students faced by colleges and universities in New England. Rather, it simply tries to push the reality aside. Mergers also follow an economic logic that has not served our agricultural sectors well. Consolidation and concentration in any sector lead to monocultural mindsets that create structures ill-fit for creativity and innovation, much less the pursuit of the common good.

By allying itself with Chelsea Green Publishing, a mission-aligned business, Sterling also created a partnership in which the two entities are not competing, in contrast to the case with college consortia. Instead, Sterling and Chelsea Green had complementary strengths that would support both “businesses” (and, yes, if it’s not utterly clear by now, higher ed is definitely a business, as well as a key contributor to Vermont’s economy). Such cross-sector alliances are likely to be key in higher education’s ability not just to survive but to thrive in Vermont. Rural colleges are often social-capital accelerators in our small communities, providing one win-win collaboration after another.

We need not be insulated or isolated in our work toward a true “rural renaissance” — a broad-scale collaboration rooted in individual skills and collective vision, all boosted by an entrepreneurial spirit. With all that online education can provide in helping individuals and communities achieve and share that rural renaissance, the School of the New American Farmstead is about to take one more step in breaking down the rural-urban divide.

Philip Ackerman-Leist is dean of the School of the New American Farmstead at Sterling College, as well as a farmer and author.

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