Our Opinion: SVC closing requires quick action
When Southern Vermont College closes at the end of the academic year, the effects will be felt throughout the region and for a long time to come. Data available from June 2017 shows that SVC paid a total of $6.76 million in salaries and benefits that year.
The loss of jobs, incomes and benefits, together with the departure of about 340 students enrolled this year, will have an indelible economic impact on Bennington County.
People will endure the emotional gut punch that comes with job loss, and the community of students, staff and faculty will lose a source of pride and identity that comes with being at a fine academic institution.
Sadly, the closing of small, liberal arts colleges — struggling with small endowments and declining enrollments — is trending nationwide. Since 2016, Vermont has seen several colleges close. Green Mountain College in Poultney is closing. Burlington College is closed. The College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Goddard College in Plainfield are on probation. The state's underfunded public colleges are not immune: Castleton University made staffing cuts last year to close a budget deficit, and Lyndon State and Johnson State have merged to become Northern Vermont University.
That trend is being seen at other small colleges in New England which, like SVC, rely upon enrollment and lack the financial resources to ride out unforeseen storms. SVC did its best to overcome the financial hurdles in its way, but once accreditation probation was raised as a possibility, the resulting drop in projected admissions for next year all but sealed the school's fate.
So now what?
First, state and federal government should get involved immediately to solve pressing needs like employment help, unemployment benefits and assistance to students needing transfer destinations.
Second, local leaders must pull together quickly and chart a strategy for how Bennington might turn this crisis into opportunity. On Thursday in Poultney, education, government, civic planners and community foundations will gather for a brainstorming session as the town copes with the coming loss of Green Mountain College and its 150 employees. We suggest a similar summit should happen in Bennington, and sooner rather than later.
The state of Vermont has a significant role. There are any number of adaptive reuses for the Southern Vermont College campus which could benefit our region and Vermont's social and workforce development issues. Mental health and addiction treatment, for example, are compelling needs, as is training the next generation of nurses, a service Southern Vermont College was providing through a partnership with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
The resulting shortage of education and training opportunities caused by college closings needs to be addressed. The $25 million that state college presidents sought from the Legislature to make tuition more affordable should now be a question of "when," not "if."
A Senate bill that would put state college tuitions on a need-based scale ought to be approved. Workforce development starts with higher education and post-high school technical training. The state must start treating workforce development as a necessity.
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