BENNINGTON — Despite the number of college students set to continue to decline nationally, Bennington College and Landmark College, along with other residential colleges in more northern parts of the state, are in a good place.
“Our fall enrollment will be a near record for us,” said Tony Cabasco, vice president for enrollment at Bennington College. “We’ve seen strong interest in Bennington with a large growth in applications, which have doubled since 2020.”
Bennington College hit a record year in applications in 2021 and another in 2022, Cabasco said. In 2021, the college enrolled the largest class in its history and enrolled another large class this fall.
“We have also improved our retention rate to a record for the large entering class that entered in 2021,” Cabasco said. “The combination of enrolling two consecutive large classes and improved retention has led to a near-record enrollment.”
Cabasco said these feats were accomplished by sharing the college’s story with more students. Efforts include reaching out to more sophomores and juniors, enhancing its marketing campaign, adding more virtual recruitment, and having more personalized follow-up by admissions staff and current students.
“We are able to draw on a national pool of students and draw students from outside New England while maintaining steady growth in our region,” Cabasco said.
Lisa Noble, associate dean of career development and field work term at Bennington College, said though Bennington students completed field work term experiences in more than 34 states and 27 countries last year, nearly 30 percent or 144 of them chose to stay in Vermont to gain new skills and apply what they’d learned in class. Data for the 70 percent of Bennington alumni who have profiles on LinkedIn suggest that 9 percent have stayed in or returned to the region and work in education, media, arts/design, architecture, entrepreneurship, healthcare and social services.
The college is intentionally building more Vermont partnerships. Noble said the Career Development and Field Work Term office has more than quadrupled the number of its Vermont-based employer partners since 2016, going from 14 to 62.
“We want to contribute to Vermont’s economic development,” Noble said. “ Vermont is a great place for entrepreneurs. Bennington has one of the highest percentages of entrepreneurial grads of any liberal arts institution, so it makes sense to encourage our students to stay and make things here in Vermont.”
The situation is similar at Landmark, school officials reported.
“Enrollment is looking strong at Landmark College,” said Michael P. Stefanowicz, vice president for enrollment management at the Putney school. “We just welcomed our largest fall on-campus class in five years and we have seen a second semester of steady growth in the College START program, the first step in LC Online’s associate degrees.”
Stefanowicz said Landmark also saw strong rates of returning students or retention, which he considers signs of the school’s “supportive environment.” He noted how more students are pursuing bachelor’s degree offerings, which have grown in number at Landmark in recent years.
“The population of college-bound students is predicted to continue declining everywhere through 2026 — a well-documented demographic trend,” he said. “While this puts a lot of external pressure on higher education as an economic sector, the enrollment numbers this fall suggest that bright, neurodivergent students see a lot of value in a Landmark College education.”
WCAX recently reported other colleges in Vermont are “bucking national enrollment trends.” The article points to statistics from the National Center for Education showing college enrollment around the U.S. has been on the decline since 2009 while Norwich University, University of Vermont and Middlebury College are hitting record numbers.
Stefanowicz said over the last decade especially, Landmark has seen a lot of program development. That included the addition of bachelor’s degrees, online courses and online dual enrollment for high school students who learn differently to earn college credits.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Landmark in Putney had a smaller class on campus in fall 2020. Still, Stefanowicz said, overall enrollment remained strong as the school shifted to offer an online-only option for several dozen students who opted not to come to campus.
“Subsequent classes have been on par with our typical enrollment goals,” he said. “The fall 2022 incoming class is the largest in five years, and that is coupled with strong retention.”
Bennington College had a similar experience.
“Though we declined in fall of 2020, as all higher education institutions did, we rebounded quickly with our focus on student support, our successful shift to remote instruction, and nimble deployment of resources, “ said Zeke Bernstein, dean of researching, planning and assessment at Bennington College.
‘An easy sell’Jen Stromsen, director of programs at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., noted how the local college landscape has changed in recent years.
“If we were honest, over the last decade, there has been a real downsizing,” she said. “We have fewer institutions enrolling students in Vermont, particularly in southern Vermont, than we did 10 or 20 years ago.”
In 2020, Marlboro College finalized a deal to close its campus in Vermont and merge with Emerson College in Boston. A year earlier, Southern Vermont College in Bennington and Green Mountain College in Poultney closed. In 2018, SIT Graduate Institute announced it would be limiting the time students spend on its Brattleboro campus.
Stromsen described COVID as another disruption. However, she said, “Vermont colleges did a great job, the way the state did, to use data and remain safe and open so students can be learning in person.”
Vermont colleges could offer an in-person learning experience and not lose ground in enrollment, Stromsen said, whereas other colleges around the country were unable to do that. She noted how Vermont was able to brand itself as “the healthiest place during COVID.”
“And the quality of life, that continues to be able to help draw people to college in Vermont,” she said.