Castleton University establishing site in Bennington
Program will pick up nursing courses, where SVC dropped off
BENNINGTON — Castleton University has concluded a partnership agreement with Southwestern Vermont Health Care to take over the role of a registered nurse bachelor's degree program now offered in Bennington by Southern Vermont College.
That involvement in the area could be just the beginning of an expanded presence for the university, officials said during a joint announcement Tuesday.
"We are doing some research now," Castleton President Karen Scolforo said. "We are thinking that this is a huge opportunity."
She said the college has applied to the New England Commission of Higher Education for an accreditation change to establish an additional programming location for Castleton in Bennington.
She said final approval for the satellite location is expected in June.
"Upon that approval, we have the full access to offering any of our programming there," Scolforo said. "It will be interesting to see in terms of workforce development what other programs make sense in the region. Our team is very excited to expand there and to really play a critical role in bringing people to that area."
The registered nurse bachelor of science degree program under the financially troubled SVC, which announced it will close after the spring semester, includes a standing offer of employment within the local health care organization upon graduation and tuition reimbursement.
That program will now continue under a new partnership with Castleton, according to SVHC President and CEO Thomas Dee, who said it could expand. Dee said student recruitment for the fall semester, including in high schools, is underway through both institutions.
The nursing program will be offered by Castleton at the current site in leased space at the Vermont Mill Building on Benmont Avenue, officials said. Instructors will be based here and all courses taught in Bennington.
The SVC nursing program currently has about 25 students and projections are for 30 or more to be enrolled here in the fall.
Castleton's nursing program has another 200 students taking courses on the main campus, said Maurice Ouimet Jr., dean of enrollment.
In announcing the tuition and employment program in the fall of 2018, Dee said SVHC's prime goal is to help counter a projected shortage of registered nurses in Vermont of as many as 5,000 within five years. Current RNs are aging and retiring, Dee said, with an average age of 55 at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
He said he would not be surprised if other colleges and hospitals in the region form similar partnerships to address the looming RN shortage.
According to Ouimet, the university sees "a lot of potential for growth" in the Bennington-based program, and possible growth in other academic areas there as well.
He said the agreement with the hospital calls for tuition to be paid to the university and reimbursement after graduation and employment by SVHC coming through the health care organization.
Ouimet said that tuition is about $15,000 per year, less any scholarship or other assistance a student receives.
In addition, Scolforo said Castleton will be offering online courses at a discounted tuition rate for registered nurses at SVMC seeking to complete their bachelor's degree.
Scolforo said that Vermont Technical College also might be moving its nursing programs — now located at 210 South St. in Bennington — to adjoining space in the Vermont Mill.
VTech President Patricia Moulton said in an email that the institution is considering a move to the mill property but no final decision has been made.
"If we move, it will be our only site in Bennington, not an additional site," Moulton said. "We will continue to offer our nursing program there as we have for many years."
"Our plan is to share space at the mill with Vermont Technical College," Scolforo said. "We are really excited to do that, as our programs are very different."
"This would be a nice synergy, with both of the colleges working together," Dee said.
Officials from the college and SVHC spoke via speakerphone during an announcement Tuesday morning.
According to Jonathan Spiro, chief academic officer at Castleton, about 10,000 square feet of space will be leased on two floors in the multi-use former mill at 160 Benmont Ave.
Loss and opportunity
"SVC was a real loss and really tragic for our area," Dee said. "Castleton now has stepped up here, and that was not an easy thing to pull off, especially in a very short period of time. When you start a satellite program, there is a lot of investment; it's complicated, and it doesn't happen easily, and they have moved very quickly."
He added, "Over 50 percent of our employees are nurses, and we need a great partner. It is exciting to be working with Castleton, and we expect it will be a great relationship going forward."
"It is sad when a small college closes," Scolforo said of SVC.
But she said that, unlike a small private college on its own financially, the state college has "the resources and potential for growth," and for collaboration with other state institutions, to allow it to establish a presence in the area and possibly expand further.
Spiro said the Castleton program in Bennington can help the area on three levels — by preserving an existing nursing program that otherwise would have been lost with the closure of SVC; by being "an economic driver for your region;" and thirdly, by preserving a much-needed registered nurse training program amid a New England wide shortage of younger nurses.
"It is just a great partnership," he said.
The officials also said that SVC's radiologic services bachelor degree program will be preserved at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in nearby North Adams, Mass., with medical training continuing at SVMC.
Moulton said that VTech will continue to fill a different role in educating and training nurses in Bennington, complementing the RN bachelor's program offered by Castleton.
"Our nursing students can do one year and receive a certificate as a Practical Nurse," she said. "They can go out in to the workforce at that point or continue on to receive an Associate Degree in Nursing as a Registered Nurse."
VTech students can then join the workforce and continue toward a bachelor of science degree online while employed, she said.
"We call our program a "1 + 1 + 2" program that gets nurses a bachelor's degree," Moulton said. "We find more non-traditional students like the model as they can work in between semesters as a nurse; they are committing two years in college, not the full four It also gets nurses into the hospital faster than the straight four-year BSN."
SVC, which will hold its final graduation on May 18, enrolled about 340 students in total at the start of the fall semester and employed nearly 100 full-time, and its demise is seen as a blow to the Bennington area economy.
One of the health care center's considerations, Dee said, was to retain the RN program in Bennington for both educational and economic reasons.
"So it is very nice what Castleton has been able to do here, in terms of the same location," he said. "The same faculty will be teaching there. So it is kind of a win-win."
The partnership "is also about economic development for our region," Dee said, in terms of young people moving to Bennington and obtaining good-paying jobs, living in the area and possibly settling here.
"It's has a real [economic] multiplier effect," he said.
Dee said maintaining a strong partnership with an educational institution also is important to SVMC's status as a Magnet-designated hospital, which requires a significant number of credentialed nurses with BSN degrees in the workforce.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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