The ivy-covered first-year dormitories at St. Michael’s College are a little less full than administration had hoped this year. The college fell 20 students short of obtaining its desired 510 newcomers, according to college spokesman Alex Bertoni.
Currently, St. Michael’s has a projected deficit of $1.1 million. In recent years the private Catholic college has reduced full-time faculty through a combination of voluntary separation packages and non-renewals as part of its former president’s strategy to address financial woes by downsizing. CFO Rob Robinson has said St. Michael’s is working to strike a balance between costs and student experience.
But with the number of New England high school graduates projected to decline 14 percent by 2032, according to the New England Board of Higher Education, some have questioned how sustainable Vermont’s colleges are.
“St. Mike’s will stay in business,” the college’s new president, Lorraine Sterritt, affirmed in a recent interview with the Sun. “Do we have challenges? Yes, of course we do, but we have an army of people working on it, we have new beginnings now.”
This year, the institution has around 2,000 students in both its undergraduate and graduate programs, Bertoni said. Tuition, room and board amount to $57,595. The 1,650 undergrads each receive an average financial aid package of $35,838, a number that could drop in future years depending on the balance Sterritt hopes to achieve.
“We are very good on financial aid, as well we should be because it fits with our mission,” she said. “At the same time, the finances have to work, so it’s all a balancing act.”
Likewise, Sterritt said future hiring decisions will depend on the “sweet spot” the administration is working to identify. Currently, dean of students Jeffrey Trumbower pulls double duty as dean and interim vice president of academic affairs.
Despite upticks in enrollment in 2009 and 2014, the total number of students – graduate, undergraduate and the college’s Academic English Program – has decreased over the past decade, data from the college’s registrar shows. But reaching 510 enrolled first-year students is Sterritt’s main focus, and she’s confident the college will get there.
The president said her tours and mobilization of alumni will increase the number of future Purple Knights. She touted alumni among the best resources of the college and suggested if each alum submitted the name of one prospective student, the college could surpass its goal.
Focusing on career advancement and offering new majors such as data science will help the school keep with the times, Sterritt said.
“Frankly, different things attract different students,” she said. “Within reason, we need to offer students options.”
Another prong of Sterritt’s approach is fundraising.
“I don’t ask people for money the first time I meet them because you have to build a relationship with them,” she said.
Rather, the president researches the person she’s meeting with and determines what they might be interested in supporting.
Over his 20-year career at the college, former media studies professor David Mindich said he witnessed St. Michael’s strengthen its faculty and programs but, in his last decade there, weaken its fundraising efforts.
Mindich cited the college’s $13.5 million student center as a superfluous expense.
“Had we poured that money into student scholarships and had we been more active in really getting out a positive message about the school and embracing our social justice and increasing multicultural nature, we would have been in better shape,” he said.
Additionally, the former professor said stagnant salaries contributed to low morale on campus.
“Because of budget constraints, the college hasn’t given a lot of raises to its faculty and staff,” he said. “That’s understandable, but there are things you can do outside of budget constraints that can help morale.”
He said junior faculty members should be reminded and thanked for their talents and contributions to the college. Mindich, now chairman of Philadelphia’s Temple University journalism department, says he misses the Vermont college every day.
“The new president has a great vision and a lot of energy, and I’m really hopeful for the future,” he said. “[St. Michael’s] can outlive us all if the college remembers its past and reminds all of its audiences of all of the great things that it has done and continues to do.”
In a small office in the college’s oldest academic hall, Sterritt works to do just that. She ushers visitors in one after another and prepares for her next recruitment and fundraising tour.
“Sure, we have our challenges,” Sterritt said. “But we are more than equal to the task.”