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PUTNEY — Despite the number of college students set to continue to decline nationally, Landmark College and Bennington College along with other residential colleges in more northern parts of the state are in a good place.

“Enrollment is looking strong at Landmark College,” said Michael P. Stefanowicz, vice president for enrollment management at the Putney school. “We just welcomed our largest fall on-campus class in five years and we have seen a second semester of steady growth in the College START program, the first step in LC Online’s associate degrees.”

Stefanowicz said Landmark also saw strong rates of returning students or retention, which he considers signs of the school’s “supportive environment.” He noted how more students are pursuing bachelor’s degree offerings, which have grown in number at Landmark in recent years.

“The population of college-bound students is predicted to continue declining everywhere through 2026 — a well-documented demographic trend,” he said. “While this puts a lot of external pressure on higher education as an economic sector, the enrollment numbers this fall suggest that bright, neurodivergent students see a lot of value in a Landmark College education.”

WCAX recently reported other colleges in Vermont are “bucking national enrollment trends.” The article points to statistics from the National Center for Education showing college enrollment around the U.S. has been on the decline since 2009 while Norwich University, University of Vermont and Middlebury College are hitting record numbers.

Bennington College also is seeing strong enrollment patterns.

“Our fall enrollment will be a near record for us,” said Tony Cabasco, vice president for enrollment at Bennington College. “We’ve seen strong interest in Bennington with a large growth in applications, which have doubled since 2020.”

Bennington College hit a record year in applications in 2021 and another in 2022, Cabasco said. In 2021, the college enrolled the largest class in its history and enrolled another large class this fall.

“We have also improved our retention rate to a record for the large entering class that entered in 2021,” Cabasco said. “The combination of enrolling two consecutive large classes and improved retention has led to a near-record enrollment.”

Cabasco said these feats were accomplished by sharing the college’s story with more students. Efforts include reaching out to more sophomores and juniors, enhancing its marketing campaign, adding more virtual recruitment, and having more personalized follow-up by admissions staff and current students.

“We are able to draw on a national pool of students and draw students from outside New England while maintaining steady growth in our region,” Cabasco said.

Lisa Noble, associate dean of career development and field work term at Bennington College, said though Bennington students completed field work term experiences in more than 34 states and 27 countries last year, nearly 30 percent or 144 of them chose to stay in Vermont to gain new skills and apply what they’d learned in class. Data for the 70 percent of Bennington alumni who have profiles on LinkedIn suggest that 9 percent have stayed in or returned to the region and work in education, media, arts/design, architecture, entrepreneurship, healthcare and social services.

The college is intentionally building more Vermont partnerships. Noble said the Career Development and Field Work Term office has more than quadrupled the number of its Vermont-based employer partners since 2016, going from 14 to 62.

“We want to contribute to Vermont’s economic development,” Noble said. “ Vermont is a great place for entrepreneurs. Bennington has one of the highest percentages of entrepreneurial grads of any liberal arts institution, so it makes sense to encourage our students to stay and make things here in Vermont.”

Stefanowicz said over the last decade especially, Landmark has seen a lot of program development. That included the addition of bachelor’s degrees, online courses and online dual enrollment for high school students who learn differently to earn college credits.

Landmark also runs Success Center in the Bay Area of California. Stefanowicz said the center is growing and providing neurodiverse teens, young adults and adults with academic support, executive function coaching, and student life/transition to college skills training.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Landmark in Putney had a smaller class on campus in fall 2020. Still, Stefanowicz said, overall enrollment remained strong as the school shifted to offer an online-only option for several dozen students who opted not to come to campus.

“Subsequent classes have been on par with our typical enrollment goals,” he said. “The fall 2022 incoming class is the largest in five years, and that is coupled with strong retention.”

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Bennington College had a similar experience.

“Though we declined in fall of 2020, as all higher education institutions did, we rebounded quickly with our focus on student support, our successful shift to remote instruction, and nimble deployment of resources, “ said Zeke Bernstein, dean of researching, planning and assessment at Bennington College.

After collegeThere is hope among many that graduates of Vermont schools will stay here afterwards.

“I moved to Vermont to be with chosen family after graduating with my master’s in social work from Hunter College,” said Michaela Hearst, a Landmark graduate who is now a licensed master social worker and the school based clinician at Twin Valley Middle High School and pursuing a license in clinical social work.

Rhiannon Greywolf grew up in Central Vermont and stayed in Rhode Island with her family after getting her second degree, a bachelor’s degree in studio art, from Landmark in December 2019 just before the COVID-19 shutdown.

“After that, I spent my fifth year in Rhode Island trying to figure out what to do with my degrees in this new world,” she said. “I admit, that year was confusing, frustrating and I was fearful for my future as the year was coming to a close.”

Greywolf said she and her partner were making trips to Vermont toward the end of this year, looking for jobs and housing. After reaching out to her supervisor at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, where she interned during college for two years, Greywolf was offered a position as the gallery associate.

In addition to the job, she cited the sense of community in Vermont and her connections as reasons for wanting to stay here.

“I have met lifelong teachers, mentors and friends through Landmark College and these relationships are indispensable,” she said. “I am still in contact with many of my professors and some of us are even colleagues now. They’ve all taught me so much, and since graduating, it has only evolved into a lasting web of friendships that I wouldn’t trade for the world.”

‘An easy sell’Jen Stromsen, director of programs at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., noted how the local college landscape has changed in recent years.

“If we were honest, over the last decade, there has been a real downsizing,” she said. “We have fewer institutions enrolling students in Vermont, particularly in southern Vermont, than we did 10 or 20 years ago.”

In 2020, Marlboro College finalized a deal to close its campus in Vermont and merge with Emerson College in Boston. A year earlier, Southern Vermont College in Bennington and Green Mountain College in Poultney closed. In 2018, SIT Graduate Institute announced it would be limiting the time students spend on its Brattleboro campus.

Stromsen described COVID as another disruption. However, she said, “Vermont colleges did a great job, the way the state did, to use data and remain safe and open so students can be learning in person.”

Vermont colleges could offer an in-person learning experience and not lose ground in enrollment, Stromsen said, whereas other colleges around the country were unable to do that. She noted how Vermont was able to brand itself as “the healthiest place during COVID.”

“And the quality of life, that continues to be able to help draw people to college in Vermont,” she said.

Stromsen said the state’s public college system — made up of Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — is in the middle of its own consolidation. Part of that involves “very carefully” thinking about the workforce needs in Vermont and how students will be able to connect to careers after higher education, she said.

“I think Vermont’s an easy sell,” she said.

Of the local colleges, Stromsen said, “I hope they’re doing well.” She sees them as a “huge economic engine” for the area as they bring employment opportunities, students who study and families who visit.