Our opinion: College alliance a sign of the times

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A lot of people are understandably upset at the news of Marlboro College's "strategic alliance" with Emerson College in Boston.

As part of the agreement, which has yet to be signed, Emerson will get Marlboro's $30 million endowment and real estate holdings appraised at more than $10 million, though Emerson has expressed no indication that it wants the property. In exchange, Emerson's Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies program will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College, where current Marlboro students will be enrolled and Marlboro faculty will teach. Among the downsides: the local campus will close at the end of the academic year, dozens of support staff will lose their jobs, and the town will lose part of its soul.

Those are some hard pills to swallow. Now that the news has spread, complaints and accusations are flying all around on social media about mismanagement and missed opportunities. But the harsh truth is, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time. Small colleges all over New England have been struggling in recent years and closing at an alarming rate, including three in Vermont just this year — Southern Vermont College in Bennington, the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, and Green Mountain College in Poultney.

Marlboro College itself has been struggling to fill its classrooms for several years, with attendance dropping to about 150 for this current year. The school has also been under the scrutiny of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accreditation agency which has expressed concern about the college's financial viability due to declining enrollment.

Marlboro College officials are billing the agreement as the best option to preserve the local college's legacy, albeit in Boston.

"If we don't merge with Emerson, it's pretty clear we will lose accreditation and we will close anyway," said Kate Ratcliff, a professor of American studies and gender studies at Marlboro, during a weekend meeting in Marlboro.

Ratcliff was a member of the task force that worked on the college's future, as was William Edelglass, who is on partial leave from his position as a professor of philosophy and environmental studies.

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Ten years ago, Edelglass said, during the last full accreditation process, "The warning signs were flashing." At the time, said Edelglass, tuition revenue was just under $8 million. Now, it's less than $2 million.

"There are no real good options," said Ratcliff. "The merger with Emerson is by far the best option for the college and the community."

Over this past week there have been countless pleas for officials to seek another alternative, one that would keep Marlboro College in Marlboro and ensure its vitality for years to come. Unfortunately, changing demographics are not working in the college's favor.

According to Nathan D. Grawe, author of "Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education," higher education faces a looming demographic storm. Decades-long patterns in fertility, migration, and immigration persistently nudge the country toward the Southwest. As a result, the Northeast and Midwest — traditional higher education strongholds — expect to lose 5 percent of their college-aged populations between now and the mid-2020s. Furthermore, and in response to the Great Recession, child-bearing has plummeted. In 2026, when the front edge of this birth dearth reaches college campuses, the number of college-aged students will drop almost 15 percent in just five years.

There also has been a seismic shift in attitudes about the value of a four-year liberal arts degree when compared to the rising cost. Gone are the days when young people would go to college to get a broad-based education while they figure out what career they want to pursue. With the high cost of education continuing to climb, it's better to have a plan for how to pay for that education and how to make a living in your chosen field.

According to a recent poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a common thread among many young Americans is a concern over the cost of higher education. Nearly eight in 10 said they think college affordability is a very or extremely serious problem, and a majority said they were at least somewhat concerned about debt. The same poll shows that more young people are considering less expensive, more targeted options such as vocational school or an associate's degree at a community college. They can then go back for more training or education later as they follow a specific career path.

The one bright spot in all of this drama is the Marlboro Music Festival, which recently signed a 99-year lease to host its activities on the campus and is currently constructing the Jerome & Celia Bertin Reich Building and a new residence hall at a cost of $12.7 million. So regardless of what happens with Marlboro College, cultural activities on the campus will continue. Instead of fighting against the inevitable with regards to the college, it would be best to expend more energy on new opportunities. Think about how upset everyone was when the Austine School for the Deaf in Brattleboro announced it was closing down after more than 100 years. Today that entire campus is bustling with activity cultivated and managed by the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.


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