Union Institute & University, a four-year, liberal arts program, will close its Montpelier campus in mid-June when its long-term lease with the Vermont College of Fine Arts runs out. The university is consolidating its facilities in Vermont and will continue to offer a weekend residency program in Brattleboro.
More students are opting out of low-residency programs and taking online only courses, according to Dr. Ann Stanton, an associate dean of the university. Students are demanding more flexibility, less “seat time,” and a lower cost education.
“For me what’s sad is that physical presence won’t be here anymore,” Stanton said. “Montpelier is so special for students.” The loss of the campus will be “jarring,” she said for students graduating this year.
The school’s Montpelier weekend residency enrollments have declined over the last decade, according to Carolyn Krause, associate vice president of communications for Union Institute. Union has about 30 students in the Montpelier residency program and 80 online students, she said in an email.
About 15 positions in Montpelier will be affected when the program closes next year. Most of these jobs will be moved to Brattleboro or Cincinnati. Three program adviser positions will not be filled. There will be no faculty reductions; instructors will continue to offer online courses and will participate in the Brattleboro weekend option.
The university purchased the Vermont College campus from Norwich University in 2001, then sold it to the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2007. At this juncture, Union’s Montpelier base consists of one building on the campus.
The university, based in Cincinnati, has six satellite residency programs, including locations in Ohio, California (Sacramento and Los Angeles) and Vermont.
Union Institute and University helped to pioneer the “university without walls” concept. In the late 1960s, the university, which was founded in 1962, began offering long-distance, interdisciplinary learning for non-traditional students as an alternative to full-time residency programs.
Goddard College, which has a similar program, was ahead of UI by a few years, and in 1980, Goddard’s residential BA program and MFA program in writing was bought by Norwich University, which then had a presence on the Vermont College campus. Union Institute bought the Montpelier dorms, classrooms and College Hall in 2001 from Norwich.
Before Union went fully digital in 2005, the school offered correspondence coursework through the U.S. Post.
The non-traditional approach is designed to attract students who might not otherwise pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree program — single moms, caregivers, adults who dropped out of college and are now working full time.
The real innovation was tailoring a low-residency program, Stanton says, to adult students’ individual situations. Union takes a Deweysque approach to education, recognizing that degree-seeking adults “need a way to integrate” life and learning. Independent study is the norm: Students explore what they want to learn before they commit to a course of study and then they choose the faculty they want to work with.
Union has a special relationship with the Community College of Vermont. Students with an associate’s degree from CCV qualify for scholarships and course credits count toward the total course requirements. The Brattleboro location offers a one-year teacher certification program.
Bill Kaplan, a senior vice president with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, says Union’s departure isn’t a surprise. The college has leased much of the space on the campus. Its tenants also include New England Culinary Institute, the state of Vermont, the New School, and Pacem Learning Center. Kaplan says he doesn’t think the college will have any difficulty finding a new tenant and it’s also possible that VCFA may absorb some of the space for its own growing low-residency programs in creative writing and poetry, children’s literature and graphic arts. The college has 380 students and an annual operating budget of more than $10 million.
Clarification: The original story did not explain that Goddard sold its low residency program to Norwich in 1980, which was later bought by Union Institute.