By Rick Karlin
When Green Mountain College in Vermont announced last January that it was closing, recruiters at Paul Smith’s College didn’t hesitate. Within days they said Green Mountain students could transfer and continue their educations at Paul Smith’s, about 120 miles away, without missing a beat.
The northern Adirondacks college needed them.
Staring down a demographic shift that threatens small schools across the Northeast, Paul Smith’s wasn’t alone in courting the Vermonters. But for a college whose training and science programs are woven throughout Adirondack life, the stakes apply across a region as big as Vermont itself.
Both schools were small and located in remote mountain areas, which was a big part of their calling cards. They appealed to students who were interested in environmental studies and were seeking the kind of atmosphere offered in a small, rural campus, although Paul Smith’s, with about 700 undergraduates, was almost twice the size of Green Mountain’s Poultney campus when it closed.
“The culture at Green Mountain is very similar to what we have here at Paul Smith’s. There’s a real emphasis on sustainability,” Paul Smith’s chief marketing officer, Shannon Oborne, said at the time.
Students from Green Mountain were offered the same tuition, about $26,000 per year including room and board.
Ten students ended up enrolling.
Financial struggles forced Paul Smith’s to cut back five years ago. The college laid off 11 people and left 12 other position’s open—a 12 percent staff reduction at that time. Conditions appeared to stabilize that fall, as enrollment climbed by 60 students, to 892. Enrollment has declined since, though.
Paul Smith’s College’s relationship with the Adirondacks is analogous to many small towns that host a college or university. Such schools often have an outsized influence, bringing cultural, research and educational opportunities that might not otherwise exist. In the case of Paul Smith’s, though, the host is really the entire Adirondack Park rather than a particular town or ZIP code.
The college confronts the same challenges as other small colleges, especially in New England. When Green Mountain announced it closure, Sterling College and Castleton University in Vermont offered to take in the students, as did Prescott College in Arizona.
Sterling and Prescott colleges, like Paul Smith’s, stress environmental studies, outdoor activities and a rural locale. For Paul Smith’s that location is in the heart of the Adirondacks, about 12 miles northwest of Saranac Lake, on the shore of Lower St. Regis Lake.
The fact that at least three other schools were competing for the students should be no surprise, given the increasingly competitive nature of higher education in the U.S.
Nationally, total college enrollment is down from a peak of about 18.1 million in 2010. In 2017 it was 16.8 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which uses a slightly different measure, reported a 1.5 percent reduction in the number of all college students from 2017 to 2019.
Moreover, the rural Northeast, including the Adirondacks and Vermont, has seen a population decline. That’s particularly important given that an estimated 70 percent of college students nationally attend an institution within three hours of their hometowns.
“The demography in New England and the mid-Atlantic is only going to worsen over the next decade,” said Peter Stokes, managing director of Huron Consulting, a Boston-based firm that follows college enrollment.
Thanks in part to a “baby bust” following the 2008 Great Recession, many expect a 15 percent to 20 percent decline in the number of high school graduates who are ready to attend college between 2026 and 2030.
“That’s a huge swing in terms of demand,” Stokes said.
And a rural location, while appealing to some students, creates a challenge, with lots of students looking to attend college in a major city. “Rural higher education is definitely in a weaker position,” said Bryan Alexander, a consultant who follows college enrollment trends.
Convincing students in rural areas to attend college can be an added challenge, agreed Rick Dalton, president and CEO of College for Every Student, an Essex-based organization that tries to help kids from both urban and rural areas get college educations.
Indeed, Green Mountain College wasn’t the only small Vermont school to close in recent months. Also closing was Southern Vermont College in Bennington and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland.
Another problem for Paul Smith’s and other private colleges in New York State has come from the Excelsior Scholarship program instituted in 2017. This helps pay the last dollar, or amount not covered by other grants or scholarships, for students going to the state-operated State University of New York.
Open to families with incomes up to $125,000, it has forced many private schools to offer steeper discounts than usual and work even harder to compete with state schools. There is a private-school version of the Excelsior Scholarship, but only a handful of schools have used it due to the various restrictions that are imposed, such as minimum credit requirements.
Paul Smith’s, though, has offered a new public-private partnership, known as the 2+2 program, with North Country Community College, a public state university school with campuses in Malone, Saranac Lake and Ticonderoga. After attending NCCC for two years at $7,500 tuition, students can enroll at Paul Smith’s for $9,000 in annual tuition, which should cut their overall costs notably.
Despite the challenges, officials at Paul Smith’s and others see the school’s location—it’s the only four-year college within the Adirondack Park—as a selling point.
That’s more than a marketing strategy. Many agree that the school has long been a part of the Adirondacks’ cultural, economic and environmental life with its programs such as timber management, environmental studies or hospitality. And that may turn out to be a survival strategy.
“They’ve done a couple of things to make themselves very relevant to the park’s environment and its need for careful stewardship,” said John Sheehan, spokesman for the Adirondack Council.
One example is the college’s Adirondack Watershed Institute. Created in 2003 from the merger of programs in invasive species and water quality, the institute has taken a leading role in a number of initiatives to protect and study the park’s waters.
“The people here really rely on our water resources,” said the institute’s director, Dan Kelting. Water quality is particularly important in the park.
In addition to the tourism dollars generated from the park’s lakes, groundwater supplies most of the drinking water to park residents.
One of the highest-profile initiatives of late is the effort to inspect boats entering lakes for invasive species such as zebra mussels. Many people are aware of the mandatory government inspection program at Lake George, where boats arriving at launch sites are inspected and decontaminated if invasive species are found. But the Adirondack Watershed Institute runs programs on 65 bodies of water including Lake Flower, Lake Champlain and the Great Sacandaga Reservoir. New York State hired the institute for a $9.5 million, five-year contract to do the inspections during the summer season.
While voluntary, Kelting said, most boaters go along with the inspections once the dangers of invasives are explained to them.
The institute also studies the effects of salt contamination spread by road crews. Its researchers recently found that two-thirds of the wells they tested downslope from state roads had sodium levels above the federally recommended health limit.
About 100 college students from Paul Smith’s and other schools such as the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Sciences in Syracuse, the SUNY Potsdam campus and Clarkson University are hired during the summer to run the boat inspections.
The college is working on other environmental initiatives such as the effort to create a habitat for bees, birds and other pollinators, said Brittany Christenson, executive director of AdkAction, a group that has worked with the school on the pollinator project as well as road salt studies.
The school is increasingly looking to play a role in the area’s winter sports scene, upgrading 25 miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails at its Visitors Interpretive Center to attract Nordic racers to train and compete. There’s talk of building a biathlon shooting range.
Paul Smith’s is participating in the Adirondack Lakes Cuisine Trail, a state-backed effort to promote tourism and restaurants in the area. Students who go through the school’s culinary programs also end up staffing the numerous restaurants in Lake Placid, North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said. “They provide a work force for the community.”
“The folks coming out of Paul Smith’s are prepared for careers right here,” added Caitlin Wargo, the communications and development director for the Adirondack North Country Association, a not-for-profit that works on building a sustainable economy in the region.
Paul Smith’s dates to 1859, when hunting and fishing guide Apollo (Paul) Smith built a hotel. It became one of the region’s first and best-known wilderness retreats, attracting wealthy New Yorkers and several presidents, including Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt.
Smith’s son Phelps Smith expanded the businesses into a mini empire with real estate interests as well as a power and light company in nearby Saranac Lake. When Phelps Smith died in 1937 he left the land and his $2.5 million fortune in a bequest to create the Paul Smith’s College of Arts and Sciences.
The name was almost changed in 2015 when Joan Weill, wife of former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill, proposed donating $20 million, if they renamed the school as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. That would have vastly increased the school’s $27 million endowment at the time. Moreover, the school had just undergone a belt-tightening after running a deficit two years before. Endowments, say consultants like Stokes, will be vital to many schools in the future because they can help weather some of the projected enrollment challenges. Currently, a minority of private schools actually have endowments that can do that, with the rest said to be tuition-dependent.
The college’s current endowment is about $30 million, said Oborne, and the college taps between 4 percent and 5 percent annually to help with tuition grants or scholarships for students.
Neither Joan nor Sanford Weill attended Paul Smith’s but they owned a vacation home nearby and Joan Weill had previously served on the school’s board and donated $10 million. The school’s library is named for her.
The campus was split over the idea, with some saying the money would help wean the school off being too dependent on tuition. But many graduates, who call themselves Smitties, were outraged and a social media firestorm erupted. Opponents also launched a court challenge, and after a judge ruled that the school’s bequest wouldn’t allow for a renaming, the Weills dropped their plans to donate the money.
One thing the flap revealed was the loyalty many graduates had for their alma mater in the Adirondacks. Loyalty doesn’t pay the bills, though, which still leaves questions about the school’s long-term fiscal outlook.
In 2011-2012, the college’s enrollment peaked at 1,060. This fall, Paul Smith’s enrolled 716 students.
The school came in first place for the “Most Innovative Schools” in the 2020 “Regional Colleges, North” category of U.S. News & World Report’s ever-popular college rankings. For that category, the magazine asks educators such as college presidents, provosts and admissions officers about schools innovating in areas such as curriculum, faculty, technology and student life.
The school was also ranked second in the quality of undergraduate teaching.
Ultimately, Paul Smith’s would like to have between 1,000 and 1,500 students. For now, Oborne acknowledged, that goal remains “aspirational.”