Marlboro “merger” shows just how bad things are in higher ed

Nice little place you got here. Shame if something happened to it.

Marlboro College has announced an “alliance” with Boston-based Emerson College, which basically involves Marlboro paying $40 million for the right to be chewed up and swallowed.

Such a deal.

The southern Vermont school has been searching for a partner, and this agreement shows just how desperate the search had become. Marlboro is signing over its $30 million endowment and its $10 million real estate portfolio to Emerson which, I guess, means that Marlboro’s market value was negative $40 million? Yikes.

Here’s a little whipped cream on that sundae: Marlboro says it’s shutting down after the current academic year — but this “merger” won’t be finalized until next July!

After the college shuts down.

So, what’s Plan B? We all set ourselves on fire?

Marlboro is getting a couple of fig leaves in the deal. Emerson will rename its liberal arts program The Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. Which means, as Marlboro president Kevin Quigley lipsticks the pig, “ensures that the essential elements of Marlboro College will endure.”

Yeah, if you think a nameplate and new stationery are the “essential elements of Marlboro.”

Well, Marlboro students and faculty will have the opportunity to move to Emerson, so there’s that. Although, as the Boston Globe observes, “It is unclear how many students and faculty will make the transition from rural Vermont to downtown Boston.”

Yuh-huh. And will Marlboro faculty have priority over existing Emerson profs?

The sad thing about this — well, one of the many sad things — is that Marlboro is pretty well off financially compared to many of its peer institutions. Take Emerson, for instance. The Globe:

Emerson has taken on significant debt in recent years for building renovations, and Moody’s Investors Services noted that the college could upgrade its mid-tier ratings if it had a “significant, sustained increase in liquid financial resources.”

Mission accomplished.

Marlboro still had a healthy endowment, but sharply declining enrollment had put its financial standing in peril. This fall, the college has only 150 students. That’s down from 376 in 2005.

All private colleges — not to mention Vermont’s public college system except (perhaps) UVM — face the same existential threat. Not enough students.

This isn’t just a problem for educators and administrators. It’s an economic threat to any town or city that plays host to an institution. Colleges are major employers. Those are generally good white-collar jobs; many are specialized positions that draw employees to relocate in Vermont. Colleges, with the intellectual capital they generate, also tend to elevate a community in less tangible ways as well.

Take Montpelier, for instance. Vermont College of Fine Arts president Tom Greene told VTDigger last May that his low-residency school employs about 250 people. That’s a sizeable number in a town of less than 9,000. The presence of VCFA also helped preserve the former campus of Vermont College and the surrounding College Hill neighborhood, one of the most attractive areas in the capital city.

Montpelier’s downtown, formerly the kind of place where the sidewalks rolled up at 5:00 p.m., has been transformed in recent decades, thanks in large part to graduates of Goddard College and the New England Culinary Institute sticking around and opening shops and restaurants and maintaining a surprisingly strong arts culture.

NECI is also on the ropes, by the way. Enrollment is a measly 85, down from about 800 in 1999. The college will consolidate its two public-facing downtown eateries, La Brioche and NECI On Main, by the end of this year.

As for Marlboro’s $10 million worth of property, Emerson will doubtless be looking for a buyer. What am I bid for a well-used, well-loved institution in a dying industry?

Whatever happens, it won’t nearly make up for the loss of a formerly vibrant educational institution. It’s another hammer blow for southeastern Vermont, which has absorbed quite a few in recent years. And it’s a hammer that hangs over the head of every Vermont community whose fortunes have been buoyed by a college or university.

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