After years of financial troubles, Burlington College, a small alternative college in the northern end of the city, is closing its academic programs at the end of the month.
School officials announced Monday that after People's United Bank refused to renew a line of credit to the college, they had no choice but to close it.
“Since July 2014, the college has been on probation with its accrediting agency, The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) due to not meeting its financial resources standard,” the Burlington College release said Monday morning.
Under the leadership of interim President Mike Smith in 2014, the college sold a significant swath of land to a local developer in an effort to reduce its debt load. Now under the leadership of Carol Moore, the college apparently wasn't able to fully recover.
Much of Burlington College's debt was from the purchase of its headquarters building along with 32 acres of land. Under the leadership of then-President Jane Sanders, the wife of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the college purchased the land from the cash-strapped Catholic Diocese in 2010.
“The Federal Department of Education allows a college only two years of probation," the release states. "Hence, we anticipate notice from NEASC that we have not met the commission’s financial standard, and, therefore, our accreditation will be lifted as of January 2017, and the college will not be able to award academic credit after this time.”
The college found that “[t]hese hurdles are insurmountable at this time,” according to the release.
The campus of Burlington College does not look like a closed college. There's still a tent up from graduation this weekend and a temporary sign out front that says "congratulations graduates."
Inside the college's North Avenue headquarters Monday morning, there was no one at the front desk.
A young woman was carrying two paintings out of the building; she said she'd just graduated over the weekend.
She didn't give her name, but she offered a single comment about the morning announcement: “It's really sad.”
After a few tearful hugs with some of the college's staff, she left with her things.
This year's graduating class will be the last to emerge from Burlington College with a degree since it was founded in 1972 as an alternative to typical classroom education.
Students weren't even informed about the school's closure until after graduation, even though the board of trustees voted to close last Friday.
“People's United Bank is our lender, and they did decide that they're not going to renew our line of credit,” said Burlington College president Carol Moore at Monday afternoon’s press conference.
Moore's predecessor, Mike Smith, was surprised to hear the news.
“All indications were that Carol Moore — Dr. Carol Moore — had the school moving in the right direction from everything I had heard,” Smith says. “I haven't been involved in more than 18 months now, but everything I had been told, the school was moving in the right direction.”
And whatever the financial risk of the college's line of credit, Smith said the debt deal he was aware of wasn't all that risky for the bank.
“Through the agreement that was crafted 18 months ago with the letter of credit, they have collateral,” Smith said. "They have different things that they can access in order to keep the letter of credit.”
Plus, Smith made a deal to sell much of the college's land and that cut way down on the debt the school had to the bank.
The bulk of that debt came in 2010 when the college bought its North Avenue headquarters from the Catholic Diocese, which was itself deeply in debt at the time after legal settlements over sex abuse cases.
But one deeply indebted owner replaced another, and the college was never able to come up with the cash flow to pay off the property in full, even after that land deal.
Coralee Holm is the college's dean of operations and advancements. She said the closure is heartbreaking.
“To see an institution go out of business is very difficult because these students who are served here, it's going to be very difficult to find another perfect spot like Burlington College for some of these folks,” Holm said Monday.
"The higher education community has extended their support to the college and all of our current students will be able to continue their education at a neighboring college and graduate as scheduled,” reads the release the college sent out Monday. “Newly deposited students for fall 2016 will also be welcomed by colleges within Vermont, of their choosing."
Moore says the college has already reached out to Vermont State Colleges and some small private colleges in the state to find placements for Burlington College's students.
Enrique Corredera, the university communications director at the University of Vermont, offered the following response to Burlington College's closure:
"The closing of Burlington College is unfortunate, and we are sympathetic to the situation students find themselves in. We would be happy to discuss the options that are available to Burlington College students at UVM, subject to the university’s admissions requirements and transfer policies."
Wherever they end up, those students won't be getting their degrees under a tent on North Avenue.
Update 2:13 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. This story has been updated to include additional reporting, including comments from UVM's Enrique Corredera, Burlington College’s Coralee Holm, Carol Moore and former president Mike Smith.
Correction 4:44 p.m. May 2, 2017 An earlier version of this story included a misspelling of Coralee Holm's name. The above text has been corrected.