Burlington College to Close Its Doors Amid Financial Troubles

Posted By Eliana Osborn on May 18, 2016 at 9:59 am
Burlington College to Close Its Doors Amid Financial Troubles

If you go to the Burlington College website, you’re presented with a message: “We’re addressing affordability by resetting tuition to $21,500. That makes us one of the most affordable colleges in the region.” But news from the school on May 16 reveals a completely different reality: they’re closing their doors in less than two weeks. Not just for summer either—the school, already on probation from its accreditor, will be ending operations.

The problem for Burlington and so many other small colleges, is a financial one. A single bad decision, or a few in close succession, simply cannot be overcome for these institutions with limited enrollments, budgets and endowments. A November 2015 report from credit rating firm Moody’s projected a tripling of small college closures in 2017. The reason? Declining enrollments as students look for scholarships, campus activities, or simply more options available at larger schools.

Burlington College was previously presided over by Jane Sanders, who resigned in 2011, wife of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. During Sanders’ time as president, the school took on a massive amount of debt by buying property for a new campus. The plan was to grow enrollment to fund the purchase but that never worked out.

Current Burlington College President Carol A. Moore announced closure plans, saying the school’s line of credit was not extended by their bank. The thirty faculty and staff employed at Burlington will be out of work by June. The students planning to attend for fall 2016 will have to make other plans; 30 had already put down deposits, according to a story in The Atlantic.

Of the land Burlington College purchased under Sanders’ tenure, more than two-thirds was sold back in 2014. Even with that dramatic move, the school could not get back on solid financial footing. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) is Burlington’s accrediting agency. In a July 2014 letter, NEASC put the school on probation, saying it did not meet the financial resources standard of the commission.

Another recent school closure of the trade variety, Marinello Beauty Schools, followed a similar accreditor concern over financial status. While money may seem less relevant than educational content, the complexities of keeping the doors open are a frequent concern for accrediting agencies. If a school loses accreditation, they are no longer eligible for federal funds. For-profit schools like Corinthian have experienced this as a death knell, with so much of their money coming straight from the government through grants and loans.

It is still unclear whether the Sanders campaign will release a statement or comment on the Burlington College closure. Bernie Sanders has focused strongly in his campaign on making college affordable, outlining plans for making public universities and colleges tuition-free. His plans for tuition-free college would not include private liberal arts colleges like Burlington. Though, a recent Brookings report argues that tuition-free (public) college could cause increased strains on declining enrollments at small private colleges and universities.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that Sweet Briar all women’s college had also closed as a result of declining enrollment. The school was, in fact, able to avoid closing its doors last year and remains open to date.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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