I woke up this morning to another college closure: Marlboro College (VT) will become the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College. It joins 3 other Vermont colleges that have announced closures in the past year. [The others are the College of St. Joseph, Green Mountain College, and Southern Vermont College.]

Looking at just a few indicators, this ending shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it rattled me anyway. We’ve been talking about the possibility of college closure for a few years, and now it seems to be happening.

Biggest College Closure Hint: Enrollment Decline

First, Marlboro’s enrollment dropped 36% between 2009 and 2018 (132 students). That’s correct: a decline of 36% over 10 years.

Graph showing Marlboro College's drastic enrollment decline.
Source: NCES, IPEDS surveys, various years. Light green denotes graduate and professional studies enrollment; dark green, undergraduate enrollment at Marlboro.

Another Hint: Revenue Sources Aren’t Diversified

Next, consider the sources of Marlboro’s revenue. In FY08, over 70% of Marlboro’s revenue came from tuition and fees. That’s pretty much the definition of “tuition-driven” in higher education.

Bar graph that illustrates how dependent Marlboro College was on  tuition as a source of revenue in 2008.

Fast forward to 2018, and the picture looks very different: tuition and fees as a share of revenue has dropped dramatically, to 29%. That’s certainly an improvement over being so highly tuition-driven. But the proportion has shrunk so much that one has to wonder whether it was getting to be too small a proportion. Today’s news would seem to suggest that it was.

Bar graph that illustrates Marlboro College's revenue sources had shifted by 2018.

So where was Marlboro finding its core revenue? In FY17 Marlboro was relying on investment returns for 39% of its core revenue, and on private gifts for another 32%. That’s a better balance than relying so heavily on tuition and fees, but the absolute amounts involved here are very small. As far as investment returns, 2014 saw the largest amount of monies fall to Marlboro’s revenue, $6M. No other year saw that level of revenues afterwards, though.

Source: NCES, IPEDS surveys, various years.

The absolute amount of private grants and gifts was also quite variable over the past decade, and at its highest, reached just under $1M. From there it dropped off dramatically, never to recover.

Source: NCES, IPEDS, various years.

I’m willing to bet that none of this is news to the leadership and Board of Trustees at Marlboro College. And I certainly don’t presume to offer an in-depth postmortem of how the college found itself in the position it’s in today. My job (passion, really) is to look at data and highlight the stories it tells. In the case of Marlboro, I’m saddened that it took just a few pictures to tell its story, because knowing about its mission and about the thousands of students who studied there, the data doesn’t let me tell their stories. And their stories are what higher education is all about.

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