Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The Long Goodbye: Faced with a Dwindling Enrollment and an Anemic Endowment, Trinity College Tried for Years to Put off the Inevitable

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

The Long Goodbye: Faced with a Dwindling Enrollment and an Anemic Endowment, Trinity College Tried for Years to Put off the Inevitable

Article excerpt

The small class of 2001 left Trinity College of Vermont in June with more than the usual pomp and circumstances associated with graduating from this 76-year-old, traditional Roman Catholic women's college. When a few hundred women walked off this Burlington, Vt., campus of rolling lawns and well-maintained buildings with diplomas last spring, they knew they were also walking off into history.

Trinity, founded by a religious community of nuns in 1925 on 28 acres, closed its doors forever in June, prey to escalating costs, technology demands, dwindling enrollment and an anemic endowment that administrators say was inadequate to meet immediate and future financial needs.

Founded by The Sisters of Mercy initially to provide higher education to its members, Trinity has largely been a traditional women's college with a student body that numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands. By contrast, Trinity is next door to the larger, sprawling campus of the University of Vermont in Burlington, a bustling college town nine months out of the year. The population of 40,000 permanent residents here soars annually to more than 70,000 people when students arrive each fall. Less than 1 percent of these students went to Trinity, one of a dwindling number of "single-gender" colleges in America. Competing for students in such an environment eventually proved too difficult for an old institution like Trinity which offered "a classical" program that failed over the past decade to attract enough new students each year to sustain itself.

Thirty years ago, Trinity was among the first colleges in the United States to open its doors to non-traditional students (i.e., not "fresh from high school"), an innovative move for the time. Now, however, non-traditional students have become fixtures and sources of revenue at most institutions, including Ivy League schools such as Yale, where they generally pay full tuition. Trinity invented a program to attract single mothers about 20 years ago, offering them courses both day and night to accommodate their lifestyles.

The closing of Trinity has been called inevitable. Academic traditions like the small class sizes at Trinity, high academic standards and liberal financial aid packages are no longer practical at schools struggling with difficult development, financial and social issues. By the 1990s, total enrollment for undergraduate and graduate courses at Trinity had dwindled dangerously low to about 1,000 students with only about 300 residential students. It maintained a payroll for 125 faculty, staff and administrators and escalating technology costs. Operating with a $6 million debt on a $13 million budget, Trinity trustees saw the proverbial writing on the wall last year and decided to close the institution a year later rather than face rising deficits.

By this August, all the moving vans, packing boxes and SUVs had departed, leaving the job of shuttering empty campus buildings, transferring student records and overseeing the disposal of college assets to Sister Jacqueline Marie Kieslich, president of Trinity since 1999.

In a statement, Sister Jacqueline expressed her regrets about the closing, saying: "We hoped to be the exception to the prevailing trend of financial difficulty faced by most single-gender, liberal arts colleges without significant endowment. Despite all of our efforts ... we were not able to ensure a financially sustainable future."

In an interview with Matrix, Sister Jacqueline cautiously answered questions about the demise of the liberal arts institution The Sisters of Mercy founded in northern Vermont so many years ago:

MATRIX: How do you close a college with so much tradition in a community like Burlington?

Sister Jacqueline: Very slowly and very carefully. It takes a long time because there is so much to consider.

MATRIX: Why did the trustees choose to close the school? Couldn't they have cut back on services and programs? …

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