Marlboro College confident despite scrutiny from accreditors

Seventy years after its founding, Marlboro College in Marlboro is trying new strategies to lure students.

MARLBORO — As enrollments in the region's colleges dwindle, accreditors are checking in. And Marlboro College — where headcounts are again down this fall — will be getting a visit from the New England Commission on Higher Education this November.

Still, Marlboro College president Kevin Quigley sounded a confident note this week, and said that NECHE, the federally-recognized regional accreditor for the six-state region, had "with some frequency" looked in on the small liberal arts college over concerns about its enrollment and finances.

"This is not new to us in our 45-year history with our accreditors," Quigley said.

Enrollment numbers in liberal arts schools and programs are sagging across the country, but the problem is particularly acute in New England, where demographic changes are compounding the problem. Accreditors have taken note, and are visiting several Vermont schools to make sure colleges are on solid ground. Earlier this summer, they placed the College of St. Joseph in Rutland on probation, giving the school two years to shore up its finances.

But where many colleges the size of Marlboro have almost no endowment - and therefore little financial cushion - the small liberal arts school stands apart. Its endowment stood at about $40 million at the end of fiscal year, Quigley said.

The school had a successful fundraising year, Quigley added, and received a significant infusion of cash earlier this summer when it sold a downtown Brattleboro property for $3 million. The facility was the former home of the school's Graduate and Professional Studies program, which relocated to the main campus in March 2017. It also recently penned a deal with the Marlboro Music Festival, which will add buildings worth $10 million to the college's campus.

"I'm a glass half-full guy. And I look and say, `we've got some remarkable assets.' And to just say we're `struggling' suggests we're in a place where I don't think we are," he said.

Under Quigley, Marlboro made a bold move three years ago in a bid to shore up enrollment with a program called "Renaissance Scholars". The initiative offered four years, tuition-free, to one student from each of the 50 states, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

"It raised our profile in ways that were helpful. It helped expand our geographic diversity from 26 states to 34 states. It helped attract a great group of students," Quigley said.

The Renaissance program has been discontinued, Quigley said, because too many other small colleges were using similar free-tuition programs to distinguish themselves.

And while the program helped, briefly, to reverse an enrollment decline, headcounts are down again, dropping to 155 this fall. The college is quite small by design, with an ideal population between 250 and 300 students. It hit a high of 350 students in 2004.

Marlboro did see about 25 percent more freshmen this year than it did last fall. But retention numbers dropped, and overall enrollment numbers declined again.

"Like lots of things in life, it might seem like you take a step or two forward and you take a step or two back," Quigley said.