The parent organization of a national charter school network plans to buy the Marlboro College campus and hopes to establish a first-of-its-kind higher education program on the 500-acre property.
The southern Vermont college on Thursday announced the deal with Democracy Builders, a nonprofit whose affiliate organizations include several charter school portfolios, including the nationwide Democracy Prep network and the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy network in Rhode Island.
Democracy Builders hope to use the Marlboro campus to launch its “Degrees of Freedom” program. A website for the initiative described it as “an early-college, late-high school program that offers students in grades 11-14 a fully-funded, flexible, and career-targeted degree.”
Dick Saudek, the chair of the Marlboro board of trustees, said the finances of the deal would be released once it was finalized around the end of June.
The plan is subject to approval by the state’s attorney general and the Vermont Agency of Education, according to a statement released by Marlboro and Democracy Builders.
Seth Andrew, head of Democracy Builders, said in an interview that the school is currently working to receive accreditation from the New England Commission of Higher Education, either independently or through a full-accreditation partnership with another institution that is accredited.
Accreditation is technically voluntary, but it is necessary in order to receive federal funds, including federal financial aid, a critical source of revenue for colleges and universities.
Democracy Builders plans to have its first batch of students on campus in September, depending on how the Covid-19 pandemic progresses. Andrew said because of the school’s rural setup and low-residency approach, he expects it might have an easier time opening safely than most schools, though he said they’re going to wait and see before making any decisions prematurely.
“We believe in science, and we’re going to let a combination of guidelines and regulations guide us in the fall,” he said.
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Marlboro announced in November that it would shutter its campus and merge with the Boston-based Emerson College, citing steadily declining enrollments. Students and tenured faculty were given the option to transfer to Emerson. Since the closure, a small working group has been assigned the task of evaluating bids for the school’s Vermont campus.
Saudek said it doesn’t worry him that Marlboro is being sold to a school that is not yet accredited. He said of all the bids it received, this was the only one that seemed to fully fit the board’s vision of continuing education on the Marlboro campus. He called the sale to Democracy Builders a “progressive, Vermont-style resolution” to their problem.
“This bid looked as if it had the strongest chance of a sound, imaginative program. We were convinced Democracy Builders had the business plan, ambition, and track record to accomplish what we were looking for,” Saudek said.
Andrew said he expects students to graduate from Democracy Builders with a two-year associate degree, much like they would at a traditional community college.
However, unlike a community college, Andrew said Democracy Builders is hoping to have a more rigorous approach, and much higher graduation rates, which it plans to achieve through its unique approach to higher education.
“We consider ourselves a late-high school, early-college model,” Andrew said. “For some students, this will be more like grades 13 and 14 than it is like college. We’re trying to blur the line between childhood and adulthood that society has decided should exist at grade 12 or age 18.”
Democracy Builders plans to offer a low-residency program, Andrew said, where students will be on campus for just six weeks at a time — once each trimester. For the rest of the year, they will complete their studies online. He said this will allow the school to graduate as many as 1,000 students a year, while reducing costs of enrollment for all its students.
He said until the deal is finalized, he can’t release what the cost of tuition will be, but said he can say that the school expects any Pell Grant-eligible student to be able to graduate debt-free.
Democracy Builders has also said it would continue Marlboro’s partnership with the Marlboro Music School and Festival, which occupies the campus during the summer months and recently invested in two new buildings for the campus.
The school plans to have five majors: education, health, finance, and technology, and liberal arts.
Andrew said he doesn’t think the school will be a feeder college for students from Democracy Prep high schools. He said it plans on recruiting students widely, with a particular focus on the Northeast.
“The way I think about this is anywhere that has a stop on the Vemonter train, we’ll be recruiting heavily from,” he said.
Andrew said right now, it’s clear to him that the model for higher education needs to change. He said more traditional schools have had trouble adapting with the times, and said he sees Democracy Builders as shifting that approach from the ground up.
“Everything we’re doing here is new. We’re not changing one variable, we’re changing all the variables at the same time,” he said. “There’s always bumps with this kind of thing, one of the big problems for traditional higher education is not pivoting and being nimble and adjusting fast enough. But we’re nimble, we’re designed to be nimble in our DNA, and that makes me optimistic that we’ll succeed.”
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