State colleges, hospital, lawmakers, others hope to retain key SVC programs
BENNINGTON — With hope fading for a rescue of financially troubled Southern Vermont College, the focus is on salvaging local access to the school's nursing and other academic programming.
Educators and public officials involved in discussions toward that end said the ultimate goal is to strengthen the footprint of public higher education in underserved Southwestern Vermont, which is about to lose a private college with 340 students and more than 100 employees.
According to Kevin Dailey, vice president of administration at Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the parent of the local medical center, the organization is intensely interested in continuing the employment and tuition partnership it has with SVC. Under that program, students in the bachelor's degree nursing program can secure a job here upon graduation and have their tuition costs reimbursed over time by SVHC if they remain in the area.
Because details of the expected closure of SVC after the spring semester remain unclear, Dailey said the health care organization has yet to enter into serious discussions with other schools. "But we will do that," he said, "and I am fairly confident that other programs will be interest in [such a partnership]."
In fact, officials with Castleton University and Vermont Technical College expressed interest in not only expanding Bennington area options for nursing students, but also working with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to address a looming shortage of registered nurses throughout Vermont and nationally.
In announcing their partnership in 2018, the health care organization and SVC cited the goals of making it easier for students interested in becoming an RN to graduate and pay off student debt and secure their first job in the Bennington area. In turn, they said, the program would help bolster the ranks of younger residents and by extension the local economy.
SVHC also is "open to considering other health care positions," Dailey said, referring to a potential partnership to encourage students to pursue other types medical degrees.
"Within two or three weeks, we think there will be a lot more clarity [on the future of the SVC programs]," he said.
SVC announced on March 4 that the board of trustees had voted to close the school after the current semester. The decision came shortly after the New England Commission of Higher Education had held a show-cause hearing concerning SVC's failure to meet accreditation criteria related to financial viability.
SVC alumni, former college officials, local residents and others have begun fund-raising efforts and sought proposals for saving the college from closure, but to date none appears poised to halt the planned shutdown.
According to SVC President David R. Evans, the school would require a funding infusion in the range of $5 million to allow it to shed debt and reset financially based on a smaller enrollment. The current enrollment of about 340 is down from about 500 five years ago, he said, and the projected enrollment for next year plummeted by about 90 after NECHE posted the notice of a Feb. 28 show-cause hearing on SVC's financial resources.
Castleton University has a similar four-year bachelor's degree nursing program, and officials there say they are interested in talking to SVHC about the employment/tuition partnership agreement. More than two dozen SVC students, most of them nursing students, are considering a transfer, said Castleton Dean of Enrollment Maurice Ouimet during a college fair for students here on Monday.
"We are doing our best to keep [SVC students] on track for their degrees," Quimet said.
There also have been "very preliminary talks" about continuing the nursing program, he said, and Castleton officials expect to meet soon with officials at SVHC on that topic.
Besides the attraction of the work/tuition program addressing a soon-to-be critical nursing shortage, Ouimet said the opportunities for Castleton students at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center are an important consideration.
"For our nursing students, there is a desperate need for [additional] clinical facilities," he said.
Ouimet added that there "also is talk about [the public state] colleges working together" to expand educational options in Bennington, which he said could include Vermont Tech, Community College of Vermont — which of have satellite facilities here — and potentially Northern Vermont University.
"We will know more in a couple of weeks," he said.
With SVC only one of three small private colleges in Southern Vermont closing this year because of similar enrollment and financial issues, a normally busy time of year for admissions departments has gone off the charts this spring, Ouimet said.
"It is really sad to have so many students displaced," he said. "Students are in shock. It has been a challenge, but we want to do right by them."
Patricia Moulton, the president of Vermont Technical College, said the school has had discussions with SVC and other parties involved, has teaching space for its nursing program in downtown Bennington, and is open to partnering with other schools to fill the educational programming gap that will follow the SVC closure.
Vermont Tech's nursing program differs from the four-year program for RN bachelor's degrees offered at SVC and Castleton, she said, but it also offers students a different path toward the same goal.
Moulton said students at the technical school typically earn a license practical nursing degree in their first year, an RN in their second, and then complete their bachelor of science degree over the next two years. In other words, she said, most students in the program begin working after their first or second year and finish their degree while employed — with some courses offered online.
At least through the teach-out period for current SVC students, Moulton said she could envision Castleton and Vermont Tech cooperating and perhaps sharing space in Bennington. Anything longer term, she said, might depend on whether enrollment remained the same or increased after the current students graduate.
In addition to the Vermont Tech space on Union Street, SVC currently leases space in the Vermont Mill on Benmont Avenue for its nursing and radiologic science programs, and the space is leased through 2021.
Moulton said Vermont Tech has additionally agreed to take over the four-year SVC radiologic science program.
Northern Vermont University officials did not comment directly on possible expansion of programming into Bennington, but spokeswoman Sylvia Plumb issued a release, saying in part, "To help the students at SVC, we've identified which NVU degrees best match the SVC degrees. Northern Vermont University offers a smooth transfer process that maximizes transfer credits. We are supporting the students who transfer to NVU from these colleges by ensuring the students receive aid that is comparable to what they receive at SVC or at the other colleges that are closing."
Moulton said Northern Vermont University has strong mental health counseling and addiction treatment related programming that might combine well with existing nursing or other medical care programs in Bennington.
Currently, she said, Vermont Tech and SVC combined have more than 70 nursing students enrolled.
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, where some 70 SVC students have applied to transfer, also has discussed with SVC officials taking over the school's nursing program. However, Evans said Wednesday that the North Adams, Mass., college "does not appear able to take on the nursing program. We are continuing discussions with the other mentioned schools to find the best way to go forward, but there's nothing definite yet. Vermont Tech's model is very different from ours, and of course Castleton is some distance away, so each has its own challenges."
Whether the SVC campus with its dorms, sports center and other facilities, play any educational role long-term will likely have to await discussions about the future of the 371-acre campus property and the school's more than $6 million in debt, officials said.
Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont state college system, said "all of the colleges are doing what we can," such as concluding teach-out agreements for current SVC students that allow them such options as paying tuition at the same rate they paid at SVC or offering in-state Vermont tuition rates for those from out of state.
The colleges also have "talked about how we can increase our presence in Bennington," Spaulding said, but he added that would likely focus on off-campus sites, such as those now operated in the downtown by Vermont Tech and Community College of Vermont.
With "a lot of pain out there right now" for higher education and the number of high school graduates seeking to attend college falling in New England, Spaulding said the prospect of the state operating a new campus like the SVC site "is probably not likely."
He said of an earlier proposal to have Castleton take over the nearby Green Mountain College property, "It didn't appear feasible to take on a campus."
"This is a very trying time for higher education," Spaulding said. "It is very trying to the communities involved as well, and we want to be helpful."
But he added, "We [the state colleges] have to stay strong [fiscally]."
Concerning the SVC campus, Evans said college officials met March 15 with representatives from the two banks — Community Bank and the Bank of Bennington — that hold a mortgage on the campus land and buildings. He said a plan from the school for the closure over the spring and summer was offered but that the banks had not issued a response as of earlier this week.
Bennington County Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion said earlier that they had met with a number of officials from Vermont's public colleges. They reported March 20 that none of the institutions would likely locate a new facility in Bennington at this time, and that many complex details of the SVC closure, particularly regarding the campus property, would have to be worked out before any reuse plans could be considered.
However, Campion added Wednesday, "Dick and I are planning to pull together again the group we met with last week. We have this tentatively set for April 2."
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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