Burlington College's Shutdown Is Bad For Sanders

by Emily Shire

On Monday, Burlington College announced it would be shutting its doors because it could no longer operate under "the crushing weight of debt." Under typical circumstances, the shuttering of a small — very small, only 70 current students small — private liberal arts college would go largely unnoticed. But Jane Sanders was Burlington College's president between 2004 and 2011. Since her Democratic presidential candidate husband has has put forth a college tuition proposal that has been a cornerstone of his popularity, especially with millennials voters, should the closing of a college his wife formerly ran hurt Bernie Sanders' college plan credential?

Now, Jane Sanders' professional life shouldn't necessarily be a reflection on Bernie's. Moreover, she hasn't served as president for about five years now, but there are indications that Burlington College's financial decline happened under her watch — and maybe with her (clearly inadvertent) help. A primary cause of that "crushing" debt reportedly stemmed from Sanders' decision to purchase a new campus in 2010, 33 acres along Lake Champlain in an effort to "attract more students and donations from alumni," Politico's Maggie Severns noted in an article from February. David A. Graham at The Atlantic did not mince words about Sanders' negative impact on Burlington College: "Many of the school’s financial difficulties date to Sanders’s tenure as president."

Severns' article also noted that Burlington College may not have even be worth students' bang for their buck. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the annual tuition was $25,569, even after student scholarship and loans, substantially more than the $16,574 national average for private colleges. Moreover, a scant 24 percent of Burlington College students managed to graduate in six years or under. Severns noted, "Only a third of former Burlington College students earn more than the average person with a high school diploma."

According to the Burlington Free Press, when the school's closure was announced in a press conference President Carol A. Moore and Dean of Operations and Advancement Coralee Holm declined to lay blame on Jane Sanders. The Washington Post noted that (Bernie) Sanders' campaign team has "ignored repeated requests for comment" on Burlington College's closure.

When examining the financial unraveling of any institution, especially a tiny, not well-established, private college, it's hard to pin the blame on one decision or person. No one is saying Jane Sanders is the sole reason Burlington College tanked, but her role at the school doesn't look good — and it looks worse that she reportedly was awarded around $200,000 in severance from the school, according to Burlington College tax filings, the Wall street Journal reported.

But does the closing of Burlington College reflect badly on Sen. Sanders' college tuition plan? Not necessarily. His proposal has focused on public institutions, which Burlington College was not, so it's not fair to consider it as proof that his specific plan wouldn't work. However, many, many others have criticized Sanders' college tuition plan as a pie-in-the-sky proposal that isn't remotely realistic. The financial failure of a college run by his wife certainly doesn't help calm those fears.

Even more significantly, the Washington Post's Jame Hohmann points out that the Burlington College situation gives credence to one of the Clinton campaigns biggest criticisms: "Bernie and Jane were insufficiently vetted by the mainstream media." His presidential campaign doesn't seem particularly ready to answer the questions of how his wife's record as college presidents jives with his own tuition plan, which Sanders has made such a major part of his message. Even if the Sanders want to argue those are two separate areas of concerns, they seem unprepared to do so — and that's the bigger problem than Burlington College's shutdown.