New model of higher education could take root in Marlboro

Marlboro College.

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MARLBORO — Though the deal has yet to be finalized, the founder of Democracy Builders announced Thursday that he wants to develop a new model for higher education on the campus of Marlboro College that avoids the pitfalls that have felled liberal arts colleges around the country.

"We are reimagining higher education, not tinkering around the edges," said Seth Andrew, who founded a network of charter schools across the United States known as Democracy Prep.

According to its website, the mission of Democracy Builders "is to engage disenfranchised communities in democracy by incubating and expanding innovative civic education, advocacy, infrastructure, and technology."

The future of the campus in Marlboro has been of much concern for many people since the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced a planned merger with Emerson College in Boston. That merger, which will create the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson, is expected to be finalized at the end of June. Many of the current Marlboro students will finish their studies in Boston with most of the faculty that has been teaching in southern Vermont. Those faculty members were offered positions at the new institute.

But Emerson did not want the real estate that came with the deal and folks in the region expressed concern that the campus might be subdivided for homes or sit empty. Since November, said Andrew, he has been talking with the Campus Working Group, which was tasked with finding ways to utilize the campus after Marlboro moves to Boston. The deal for the 500-acre campus won't be finalized until the merger with Emerson is complete, said Andrew, during a phone call with the Reformer on Thursday.

While the campus was appraised at $10 million, Andrew said that's not the purchase price. Andrew wouldn't divulge how much he's paying for the campus.

He said Democracy Builders plans to use the campus for a new model of higher education that is designed to "dramatically reduce costs and improve outcomes" for low-income and first generation students.

"Upon state Attorney General and Agency of Education approval, Democracy Builders' Degrees of Freedom program will offer a hybrid degree that will bring cohorts of students to the campus for multiple residencies each year and continue the tradition of higher education on Potash Hill," states a press release announcing the agreement.

Degrees of Freedom and the Freedom College model planned for the Marlboro campus are born out of Democracy Prep's work with 10,000 K-12 students in its charter schools. Democracy Prep has an annual operating budget of $100 million and employs more than 500 people in its schools in New York City; Camden, N.J.; San Antonio; Baton Rouge, La. and Las Vegas.

Before founding Democracy Prep, Andrew served in the Obama White House as senior advisor in the Executive Office of the President and for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, where he led the Education and Civic Technology portfolios.

Andrew is not bashful about his intentions for the campus. He believes the new model will "revolutionize the design and structure of college while bringing new energy to the beautiful hills of southern Vermont."

This new model, he said, is "a more nimble, personalized, and career-targeted model of higher education that aims to yield dramatically better outcomes for our students."

Andrew said the idea he hopes to bring to southern Vermont has been gestating for five or 10 years.

"The past two years we've been doing a due diligence," said Andrew. He looked at two colleges in Vermont that recently closed, Green Mountain College in Poultney and Southern Vermont College in Bennington, digging into the financials of both institutions. "Both had no endowment and significant debt."

When the deal with Emerson College was announced, Andrew immediately thought it would be the perfect place for a new model of higher education.

The model is meant to ease the transition from high school and into college, he said. Students in 11th and 12th grades will have the opportunity to supplement their school learning with what he calls a "synchronous online course." The students will also have the chance to take classes in Marlboro three times a year, two weeks at a time.

Andrew hopes to start bringing students to Marlboro this fall, but that depends on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds.

"It's a long shot ... founding a college in the middle of a global pandemic," he said. "But we will have 300 dorm beds but because this will start out as a low-residential model, not all the students will be on campus at the same time. We'll be able to offer single rooms, health checks and testing."

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While they are working through the accreditation process, Democracy Builders will offer associate degrees in health, technology, education, finance and entrepreneurship, and liberal arts as part of its Degrees of Freedom program. Degrees of Freedom will be affiliated with another accredited college, but Andrew was not at liberty to discuss who the affiliate might be.

"The current model is broken. It's too expensive, too inflexible and not inclusive," said Andrew. "We hope to offer a Pell Grant eligible student a debt-free associates degree."

When it is accredited, the plan is to change the name to Freedom College and also offer four year degrees.

"Everyone wins," said Andrew. "Emerson is getting a great partner and we get to launch something new and innovative in Vermont."

Andrew noted that the legacy of Marlboro College is another factor that makes the location exciting.

"It is a legacy of academic rigor and independent study that we are very passionate about," he said. "We believe passionately in democracy and right now it's in jeopardy and needs a lot of support. We want to produce citizens who are prepared to function in our democracy, just as Marlboro College did."

There is also a continuing discussion over relocating Marlboro Elementary School from Route 9 to Potash Hill.

"We would like to have that conversation to find if there is a way to partner in many different capacities that might not include facilities but mentorship and partnership," he said.

Being close to Brattleboro and regular train service was also a plus, said Andrew.

"We'll be able to bring kids up within this self-contained 'Hogwarts Express'," he said.

Andrew said Marlboro Music "will continue to operate unaltered" and he hopes eventually there will be some kind of collaboration between the two organizations.

As for how he plans to pay for this new model of education "We will be looking for philanthropic and public support," he said. "We need all pieces of the puzzle ... local, state and federal and business and philanthropic support."

According to the press release, the Marlboro College Campus Working Group vetted multiple offers "but most appreciated Democracy Builders' intentions for the campus and admired its civic-minded curriculum, which resonated with Marlboro's community self-governance model."

"We have a committed and unified board that enthusiastically embraced the idea of having this novel and forward-looking higher education model on our beloved campus," stated Dick Saudek, chairman of the Marlboro College trustees. "We believe Democracy Builders will continue Marlboro traditions and bring valuable new jobs and opportunities to the Marlboro community and the state of Vermont."

State Rep. Sara Coffey, Windham-1, who is a Marlboro alumna, former trustee, and co-chair of the college's Campus Working Group, stated she believes Democracy Builders will prove to be "a dynamic hub for learning, creativity, and innovation in Southern Vermont. I believe it honors the legacy of Marlboro College and carries it into the future."

Bob Audette can be contacted at