Marlboro College, a liberal arts school in southern Vermont with fewer than 200 students, is looking to fold into a larger institution after years of declining enrollment and mounting financial troubles.
College officials announced potential plans Wednesday to transfer Marlboro's academic programs to Emerson College, a private institution in Boston, by the start of the fall 2020 semester. Marlboro's campus is expected to close at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, according to a statement from Emerson emailed to Education Dive.
Marlboro had been exploring whether it could continue to operate on its own. But a "calamitous" drop in tuition revenue — from $7 million in 2012 to $2 million in 2018 — made that impossible, Kevin Quigley, Marlboro's president, told Education Dive in an interview.
As part of the deal, Emerson's Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies will be renamed the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. Marlboro students will have the option to continue their studies at the Institute. Tenured and tenure-track faculty may choose to teach there, according to a joint press release from the two colleges.
Meanwhile, Emerson will get Marlboro's $30 million endowment and its real estate holdings, which are valued at $10 million. Those funds will be used to endow the Institute and could help Emerson improve its credit rating, The Boston Globe reported.
Emerson has been expanding its footprint abroad by partnering with foreign universities and has seen recent growth in its application numbers, but its finances have been hampered by debt taken out to renovate facilities.
"Emerson’s vision is to become a global hub for the arts, communication, and the liberal arts," Emerson President Lee Pelton said in a statement emailed to Education Dive. "With this new alliance, Emerson is even better poised to continue this forward momentum now and well into our future."
"When my colleagues and I look at Emerson … it really feels like there's a great alignment," Quigley said. "We see the potential to strengthen and deepen the Institute as part of our alliance."
Emerson and Marlboro hope to confirm what they call "a strategic alliance" by July 2020.
If the deal goes through, Marlboro will become one of the latest small liberal arts colleges to either close or consolidate with another institution as competition heats up for students amid enrollment declines. Schools with fewer than 1,000 students and high tuition discount rates are particularly susceptible to closure, according to a recent report from EY-Parthenon, which has worked with Marlboro to find a partner.
The trend has hit New England particularly hard, and it's likely to worsen in 2026, when the supply of high school graduates in the region is expected to dramatically decline.
"There's going to be a ton of mergers across the landscape," Michael Horn, a higher ed consultant and author, said in an interview with Education Dive. "A lot of schools are hurting in New England right now ... (and) the pressures on these schools are going to get worse before they get better."
A 'fundamental challenge'
Marlboro, which was founded in 1946, is similar to other small New England liberal arts colleges that have shut down in recent months. Students create their own courses of study, class sizes are kept small and the entire campus can vote on collegewide issues.
It has been rocked in recent years by issues that are plaguing other small institutions across the country. The college's enrollment has steadily declined after peaking at around 350 students a decade and a half ago. And its operating deficit was expected to hit $3 million to $4 million in 2018, the Brattleboro Reformer reported.
That forced Marlboro to consider three options: reform the college so it could stay open on its own, look for a partner or shut down entirely. Knowing the first possibility might not pan out, the college pitched itself as a potential partner to 70 other colleges, Quigley said.
Its proposed arrangement with Emerson isn't the first such deal the college has pursued, however. Earlier this year, it floated the possibility of combining with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, but halted those plans "due to concerns around the sustainability of a merged institution," according to Marlboro officials.
At the same time, the college was in the process of overhauling in a bid to stay open. The faculty and staff had revamped the curriculum to cater to what students want, and the college had invested more in fundraising and student support, Quigley said.
"There's going to be a ton of mergers across the landscape. A lot of schools are hurting in New England right now ... (and) the pressures on these schools are going to get worse before they get better."
Higher ed consultant
But all that wasn't enough to counter falling tuition revenue. "I'll tell you, it's very, very hard ... (to) say you can't make it on your own even though we've taken all those steps," he said. "All those successes we had weren't sufficient to address our fundamental challenges."
Beyond the latest revamp attempt, in 2015 Marlboro launched a since-abandoned program called the Renaissance Scholars that offered four years of tuition to one student from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. And late last year, the college announced it was slashing its tuition by a third — from nearly $40,000 to $26,500 beginning in 2019-20 academic year — as a way to make pricing more transparent and recruit more students.
Tuition resets have grown in popularity as a way to attract students, but only about half of colleges that cut their prices see a bump in freshmen enrollment the first year, according to a recent study from Lucie Lapovsky, an economist and former college president.
Other small colleges have used strategies similar to Malboro's to stay open, but not all of them have been successful. Several colleges — including New England's Green Mountain, Newbury and Southern Vermont colleges — have closed this year under financial and enrollment pressures.
But other small New England schools have been successfully picked up by larger, more stable institutions. In 2018, Boston University merged with Wheelock College to create a new school of education named after the latter institution. And the Berklee College of Music combined with the Boston Conservatory in a similar manner in 2016.
Horn, the education consultant, sees an opportunity for colleges to get ahead of looming market pressures by using mergers strategically, not as a last-ditch effort to avoid total closure.
"Students can win if these mergers occur earlier," he said. Some institutions "are forgetting about the impact on students when they close in a rush."