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Marlboro College takes steps to counter enrollment decline

Student population down nearly 50 percent from a decade ago

MARLBORO—On a quiet campus nestled among hundreds of acres of woodland, Marlboro College leaders proudly use the phrase “intentionally small.”

But even in an egalitarian, close-knit academic setting, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

As college enrollment declines across the nation, Marlboro’s undergraduate numbers are both an example and a magnification of that trend.

The school’s student body this fall is about 50 percent lower than the high-water mark of 356 in 2004, and there are about 100 students fewer than what’s considered Marlboro’s ideal size.

College President Kevin Quigley, on the job less than six months, is taking action to try to reverse the trend.

His efforts include creation of a Renaissance Scholars program that offers four tuition-free years at Marlboro to a student from each of the 50 states, as well as a new push to recruit veterans to the Windham County campus.

Other moves are underway across the campus, and Quigley says faculty, staff, trustees, students, and alumni are pitching in to try and reverse a trend that has brought Marlboro’s undergraduate enrollment to just 182 this fall.

“I was very clear with the college community that [...] one person can’t address these issues that are affecting Marlboro and much of higher education,” Quigley said. “But as a community, we can address them successfully. I’m completely confident of that.”

A small niche for thinking differently

Marlboro is a relatively young college, having been founded in 1946. A graduate school, based in Brattleboro, was added in 1997.

Its undergraduate program emphasizes small class sizes and student self-governance; traditional majors are eschewed in favor of multidisciplinary, student-developed “plans of concentration.”

Marlboro administrators promote the fact that things are done differently at the top of Potash Hill, from students undertaking a wilderness experience after arriving at campus to their presenting their work for external review before graduation.

“Liberal arts colleges like Marlboro have a very distinctive, small-but-important niche,” Quigley said.

But that’s a niche in an increasingly smaller whole.

A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that college enrollments nationally have fallen for the fourth consecutive year, and this fall student numbers are down 1.7 percent compared to fall 2014.

There are some widely cited reasons for such declines, including the increasingly high cost of college. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has been among those calling for solutions to that problem: In September, he convened a discussion at the University of Vermont to unveil a “college affordability agenda.”

It’s also a matter of demographics, as shrinking secondary school enrollments mean fewer graduates to consider post-secondary education. A 2013 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education found that “the nation is entering a period of modest decline in the number of [high school] graduates being produced,” with a return to sustained growth not expected until the 2020s.

That report mentioned Vermont as a state that could see graduate losses of 15 percent or more — a change that’s already happening.

In terms of higher education, “in Vermont, we know that we’re pulling from a smaller pool,” said state Rep. Emily Long, a Newfane Democrat whose district includes Marlboro.

Long, a member of the House Education Committee, also said the state has a strong high school graduation rate, but it does not fare nearly as well in the number of those students who move on to college.

At Marlboro, Quigley pointed beyond Vermont’s borders to the overall graying of the region.

“We’re an aging population in New England and New York, and those are our traditional strongest recruiting grounds,” he said.

Reaching more broadly

Quigley is not interested, though, is playing victim to those trends.

The centerpiece of his early tenure at Marlboro has been the Renaissance Scholars program, designed to lure one student from every state with the offer of free tuition. That’s a significant savings at Marlboro, where tuition for the 2016-17 school year is $39,086.

Some might see it as a “giveaway,” Quigley said, or as a “Hail Mary” move.

“It’s anything but that,” he said. “It’s really strategic — designed to do something we need to do.”

The first goal is to “let us have a much broader reach in our recruitment, which is key,” Quigley said. And Marlboro isn’t looking for just any high school student with high marks: The Renaissance Scholars literature emphasizes community service, leadership, innovation, and perseverance.

As a practical matter, that latter trait is important not only to bring students to Marlboro but also to keep them there through graduation.

“We want people who will come and contribute and get through, successfully,” Quigley said.

With the first round of Renaissance applications due soon, college administrators see early signs that their gamble is paying off.

“Our numbers are encouraging,” Quigley said. “Our applications are up 35 percent from this time last year, and we’ve had more people pay deposits.”

Additionally, “we’ve had applicants from Louisiana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana — which we wouldn’t have had without this Renaissance Scholarship.”

There’s a clear cost to bringing in students this way. But Quigley believes “it’s far better to have more students here.”

College community rethinks curriculum, administrative approaches

Quigley also has sought to spur a “renaissance” that goes beyond offering scholarships. He said Marlboro’s faculty is in the midst of an in-depth review of the college’s curriculum “so that we can be clearer about what we do, what we’re best at, what’s distinctive about it, what impact it might have on the lives of our students.”

There are changes happening at the administrative level, as well: There’s more of an emphasis on marketing, for example, and Quigley said Marlboro is creating stronger ties between its undergraduate and graduate campuses while also creating the new job title of “chief learning officer” for the college.

“Every level of the college is going through this, and Renaissance Scholars has been the catalyst,” Quigley said.

There are other initiatives under way, and one is targeted directly at the nagging problem of college costs. In the past, even those Marlboro students who qualified for the largest financial-aid packages still had to come up with $2,700 toward their college costs. “We no longer require that contribution,” Quigley said. “So we’re shifting to meet student needs as part of our approach.”

Marlboro also is looking to strengthen its articulation agreements with community colleges in an effort to attract more students from those schools. And Quigley is working on a scholarship program that would allow him to reach out to another demographic – veterans.

Marlboro’s first class, in 1947, featured 35 veterans in a class of 50. But over the last five years, there have been only six veterans enrolled here.

“We’d like to have five times that number,” Quigley said. “We think (veterans) bring maturity. They bring world experience. They understand how to work in teams. They understand discipline and executing plans, and we know from other universities that they have a really positive impact.”

“This gives us another opportunity to reconnect with our past,” Quigley said. “And to be reborn – to start anew.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #337 (Wednesday, December 23, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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