Burlington College closes after long financial struggle

Officials cite 'crushing weight of debt'

Burlington College officials said Monday they were "heartbroken" to announce that the institution will cease operations by May 27.

The school suffered under a "crushing weight of debt," according to President Carol Moore and Dean of Operations and Advancement Coralee Holm. Moore and Holm said the school's financial troubles began in 2010, when it purchased prime lakefront property for $10 million with the goal of expanding the campus.

Moore and Holm did not criticize then-President Jane Sanders' decision, but said the debt from that transaction was the primary reason the institution would close. Sanders, who served as college president from 2004 to 2011, is married to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont).

The college had a plan for getting out of debt, Holm said, but it didn't work out. "I believe the vision was enrollment would grow, which it did, but not at the level that would have allowed us to manage the financial debt we had incurred," she said. "So here we are."

For a few years, the college seemed to be on the verge of bouncing back. The school cut costs by $1 million. It sought a partnership to help pay for and use the land. It paid down its debt to about $2 million. 

But according to Yves Bradley, the board chair, the school started getting negative press about two years ago when the president at that time, Christine Plunkett, left suddenly. Enrollment crashed after that, Bradley told the Chronicle of Higher Education. The college now enrolls about 200 students.

In April, the college's lender told school leaders that it would not renew its line of credit.

Bradley said the college lacked a large endowment or group of active alumni, both of which helped save Sweet Briar College when it nearly closed in 2015 (Despart, Burlington Free Press, 5/16; AP/New York Times, 5/16; Zamudio-Suaréz, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/16; Graham, The Atlantic, 5/16). 

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