Smaller colleges in the United States struggling to stay afloat

Global Business

Small colleges across the United States are closing at an unprecedented pace as they struggle to attract students and face revenue shortages. Part of the problem is demographics. The number of high school seniors is dropping – dramatically in some parts of the country – and students are growing increasingly concerned about student debt. CGTN’s Karina Huber reports.

For 185 years this college campus in Vermont was teeming with students. Now it sits empty. In January, the school announced it would be closing.

‘I’ve had a very long professional career. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do – to stand in front – in our auditorium with 400 people and telling principally students, but faculty and staff, that we wouldn’t be opening this fall,” said  Bob Allen, President at Green Mountain College.

The liberal arts college, that specialized in environmental studies, wasn’t bringing in enough revenue to keep up with costs. Enrollment was down and it had to offer ever larger tuition discounts to attract students. 

While annual tuition was around $36,000, no one paid that 

“We were actually discounting that about 67 percent. So the average student was really only paying about $12,000 for tuition,” said Allen.

In Vermont, three colleges have ceased operations this year, losing roughly 1,000 students. A fourth college is on probation and a fifth one has merged with another school in Connecticut. While this state has been particularly hard hit, the closures reflect a wider trend across the United States.

According to Moody’s, in the next few years the closure rate for non-profit, U.S. private colleges will climb to around 15 a year—triple what it was in 2014. 

A shrinking number of high-school seniors in the U.S. – particularly in the northeast of the country – is increasing competition among schools. There is also growing concern about student debt which hit $1.5 trillion this year.

“Students are taking out more debt. They’re questioning whether or not this is a good return on their investment. And they’re also tending to gravitate towards cities and colleges that are promising more of a career or job preparation. And so these smaller liberal arts colleges in particular in more remote areas with a lack of selectivity or national reputation, are suffering most,” said Bari Norman, Co-Founder of Expert Admissions.

The students at Green Mountain College have been transferred to other schools across the country. Most of the faculty and staff have found jobs elsewhere. 

Allen is spending his remaining days wrapping things up. The coffee machines are going away and he’s now giving tours of the campus to prospective buyers, including Chinese buyers. 

In nearby Poultney, the bars and restaurants that serviced all those students, have fewer options. They’re going to have to adapt to a smaller customer base than in the past, as Green Mountain College closes its doors.

“I think one of the tragedies for New England with the college closures is that those students were in fact coming from away to study in Vermont and spend their money in Vermont. Now they’re going to spend it someplace else,” said Allen.