Don Keelan: You only had one job

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Katie Tatum (not her real name), of Arlington, was working hard to fulfill a dream she had since high school — to become a registered nurse, along with obtaining a bachelor of science degree. Four weeks ago, her dream was crushed.

Katie, along with dozens of other young men and women, was enrolled in the BSN program at Southern Vermont College. Katie was 70 days away from completing her junior year. Katie had her heart set for graduation on May 15, 2020. On that day, her sister would "pin her" and was looking forward to joining her on the nursing staff at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

In early March, the Board of Trustees of SVC went public with their decision to close the college at the end of the 2019 spring semester. It was a decision that followed the recent closing of Green Mountain College and the College of St. Joseph, and came two years after Burlington College collapsed.

If there is any veracity at all in the rumors prevailing in the Vermont college community, a half dozen other Vermont small private colleges will cease to exist in the short-term future.

There is a litany of reasons being circulated as to why these four colleges closed. Topping the list is the fact that, over the past five years, there has been a steady decline in enrollment — a much smaller pool of college age students to draw from. What is remarkable here is that, in Vermont, there is a substantial percent of high school graduates who do not go to college.

Then there is the cost factor of operating a college, especially for those institutions that have incurred huge debt loads and are needing to find the cash to fund their annual debt service. Three of the colleges that closed had massive debt which did not exist 10 years ago.

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When the post-mortem is completed on why colleges have closed, it will show that colleges had a blase attitude when it came to cost. The cost to operate would be covered by ever-increasing tuition, students (families) taking on more debt, and the eternal money spigot: federal grants. But if there are no students, the above disappears. For some unknown reason this was never contemplated.

There has been a great deal of press coverage over the recent college closings. Nowhere in the coverage are questions asked, where was the college board of trustees? Were the board members properly and timely informed by the college administrative officers of pending financial issues? Did 100 percent of the board attend 100 percent of board meetings? Were questions put to the administration challenging management's decisions? According to Dr. Carol Moore, the last president of Burlington College, this was not the case — that college's board failed in its fiduciary responsibilities.

Only the Vermont Attorney General's office can answer the above, and, up to now, that office, which has a statutory duty to oversee nonprofit organizations in Vermont, has been silent. Doesn't the AG's office realize that thousands of students and their families are being impacted, along with hundreds of employees and small Vermont communities?

Katie Tatum and others like her will find the strength to fulfill her dreams. They and their families have invested too much not to do so. One thing they do know is not to expect any assistance from the administration or the legislature. Not when they have, for years, underfunded state-operated colleges, at a paltry 17 percent (other states are closer to 35 percent).

What the Katie Tatums of Vermont had expected when they enrolled in college was that the college board of trustees had adopted the Marine Corps Drill Instructor's promise, paraphrased here: "Let no student's ghost ever come back and say 'if only the trustees had done their job.'"

I wonder how the trustees of the closed and yet-to-be-closed colleges are sleeping tonight.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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