On most college campuses, December marks the end of the semester, but for the first time in 185 years there was no fall semester at Green Mountain College in southwestern Vermont. The closing of the liberal arts college last spring has hurt the local economy in the tiny town of Poultney — population 3,339.
Colleges in the Northeast and Midwest have been experiencing an enrollment crunch as the numbers of high school graduates in both regions are declining. Green Mountain had 427 students when it closed in May, down from more than 800 a decade ago.
"Increasingly students want to go to schools in cities and not rural areas,” said Bob Allen, the college's former president.
Of the 10 nonprofit private colleges to close or merge across the country this year, three were within a 100-mile radius in southwestern Vermont: Green Mountain, College of Saint Joseph in Rutland and Southern Vermont College in Bennington. Last month, Marlboro College, 70 miles south of Green Mountain, announced it would be absorbed into Emerson College in Boston by next fall.
Higher education is one of the biggest contributors to Vermont's economy. The college closures come with economic consequences for small towns like Poultney.
Green Mountain College was Poultney's top employer, with more than 150 faculty and staff. Nearly all professors have found jobs elsewhere and moved away. Property values in town have plummeted. A yarn store called Knitty Gritty has closed — knitting was a popular pastime with professors and students. Other businesses are struggling.
“We did a lot of business with the college. People coming in to look at the college stayed here,” said innkeeper Rich Mikkelsen, who with his wife Pam, runs a bed and breakfast just off Main Street.
Their business has taken a big hit since Green Mountain shut down.
"We're talking at least 30 percent,” Mikkelsen said. “It hurts.”
Over the past year, the inn's well-worn vacancy sign has faded and rotted. Inside his wood shop, Mikkelsen was stenciling letters on a new one.
“Everything is necessary now,” Mikkelsen said. “We don't know how long we are going to be able to last here because this is not a hobby. This is a business."
At Perry's Eatery on a recent afternoon, there was not much of a rush as manager Jill Harrington flipped burgers in the kitchen. She said when Green Mountain closed, her staff was heartbroken.
“We cried. It was awful, because [students and faculty] were in here all the time, and we get to know our customers,” Harrington said. “They become family.”
Harrington said business has been steady, but Perry's can no longer depend on the traditional annual boosts to its bottom-line.
“We had our big weekends. Parents weekend is not as crazy as it used to be, but we are so lucky we have loyal customers that return time and time again, multiple meals a day, every day,” she said, laughing.
College closings come with devastating economic and cultural consequences for small towns like Poultney, said Brad Kelsheimer, former vice president for finance and administration at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana.
"It's a love-hate relationship between a rural town and a college, especially a liberal arts college, but there is a culture and entertainment vibrancy that comes from a college or university. That's a big hit,” Kelsheimer said. “You'll see these towns dry up, I think."
Kelsheimer, currently CFO at Lumina Foundation in Indianapolis, said states like Vermont should step in earlier to keep colleges open or help them merge.
“Most states are entering the discussion at almost hospice stage,” he said. “When a college or university is on the brink of existence, then a state tends to get involved and talk about the real estate play.”
Kelsheimer said state regulators should do more as soon as a college is in trouble. (Disclosure: The Lumina Foundation is a funder of WGBH News' higher education coverage.)
In Massachusetts, for example, a new law requires increased financial disclosures for the state’s colleges, giving state regulators the authority to monitor their financial health. Schools deemed at risk will be required to file contingency plans for their students to continue their education. Over the past five years, 18 higher educations institutions in Massachusetts have closed or merged.
The ratings firm Moody’s says the law will help schools' credit ratings if it leads to “more orderly and fewer abrupt college closures. while improving public confidence about the oversight of small private colleges' financial risks.”
Kelsheimer said that kind of transparency is helpful, but cautioned against creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Once you disclose trouble, the odds of coming out of that trouble are difficult,” he said.
Allen, Green Mountain's former president, said he met with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott last year, but his administration did not do enough to help the school merge with nearby Castleton University and still is not doing enough to save small colleges and the tiny towns they help sustain.
"Too little for sure and, hopefully, not too late," Allen said.
The Scott administration and Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development say they're looking forward and helping to build demand for Vermont's remaining private and public colleges through a new marketing campaign called Think Vermont. The agency is offering tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships to accepted students to commit to a Vermont college by June 1.
Vermont has already been giving small grants to workers who move to the state. The goal is to attract the young families Vermont so desperately needs. In 2018, Vermont saw its lowest birthrate in 160 years.
So far none have moved to Poultney. Allen called these incentives a waste of taxpayer funds.
Even though Green Mountain’s enrollment was down last year, he noted, the college induced more than 400 students to pay to come to the state.
“I think the state needs to recognize that probably the best ways to attract young people to this state is through the colleges and universities," he said.
For now, Allen keeps busy giving tours to prospective buyers. He said Green Mountain has three active prospects, including one that wants to educate and train veterans.
On a recent November morning before Thanksgiving, Allen walked slowly across the snow-dusted campus that sits below the foothills of the Adirondacks and at the dead-end of Poultney's Main Street. To Allen’s right stood the red-brick dining hall and dorms; to his left, an empty swimming pool — a ghost-like symbol of dried up enrollment.
"One of the advantages of a small school is that it really was like an extended family,” he said. “I knew not all of the students by name, but I knew most, and they knew me. They called me Bob, which is what I'd prefer.”
He reflected on this latest chapter in his working life.
“I spent most of my career building businesses, and to take a 185-year-old institution and have to shut it down was really tough,” he said. "I come in generally about once a week. This time last year, there'd be a kind of joyous spirit on this campus and, right now, it's just almost silent."