Four years ago, there were at least a dozen private liberal arts colleges scattered across the small state of Vermont. Today, just eight remain, with one planning to fold into a Massachusetts college and another at risk of closing if it doesn’t shore up its finances.

In Vermont, the late Clayton Christensen’s infamous prediction that half of all colleges and universities would close or go bankrupt in the next decade appears to be coming true. The Harvard Business School professor, who later dialed back his dire prognosis, blamed the advent of online education for the eventual demise of much of the sector.

But small liberal arts colleges are more concerned with other headwinds. Enrollment of traditional-age students will likely slide further in many parts of the country over the next decade due to a projected drop-off in high school graduates. Competition for these students has led to increased tuition discounting at many private institutions. And Americans are increasingly doubting the value of higher education.

Those issues factored directly into the closures of many of the now-shuttered Vermont colleges. But in some cases, a constellation of other problems borne from attempts to address those woes hastened their decline.

Officials at Vermont’s remaining colleges say they aren’t going to make the same mistakes. And they’re working to assure students and other stakeholders that they’re well-positioned to survive the challenges headed their way over the next decade.

“It’s too simple for the CEOs of these colleges or for reporters to say this is the result of inevitable decline,” said Matthew Derr, president of Sterling College, in an interview with Education Dive. “These are institutions — some of which have survived the Civil War (and) the Great Depression — that have historically demonstrated all kinds of resilience.”

Sterling College, in Vermont, offers degrees focused on ecology and the environment.
Sterling College

Restoring public confidence

Some higher ed observers posit that these colleges’ centuries-old business model may no longer work as well as it used to.

“They became good at teaching a certain kind of student with a certain kind of curriculum,” Richard Price, a higher education research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute, told Education Dive in an interview. “When the circumstances around you change, it can be very difficult to pivot away from that.”

Although Moody’s Investors Service predicted about 15 colleges nationwide will close this year, fears of immediate and widespread shutdowns may be somewhat overblown. Enrollment at private nonprofit colleges has held steady over the last few years, and it is up slightly from two decades ago.

Still, colleges in Vermont are working to restore faith in the liberal arts model and in their operations.

“We want to reassure the community and anyone who inquires about the health of our institution,” said Nicole Curvin, Middlebury College’s dean of admissions, in an interview with Education Dive.