Seth Andrew, who founded a network of more than 20 charter schools spread across the country, has been on a strange sort of mission over the past couple of years: to purchase a bucolic yet dying New England college campus and repurpose it as a new sort of educational institution.
After fleeting flirtations with Green Mountain College and Southern Vermont College, which both closed last year, Andrew met his match in the economically troubled Marlboro College in Vermont, which is expected to merge with Boston’s Emerson College later this year.
While Emerson will likely absorb the school’s remaining endowment, some tenured and tenure-track faculty, and many of the students, Andrew will claim the 500-acre campus and its buildings. The purchase-and-sale agreement was signed early this week, according to Dick Saudek, chair of Marlboro’s board of trustees. Both sides declined to release the purchase price before the deal is finalized.
“It’s an understatement to say that it’s a tough market to sell a college campus in Northern New England,” said Saudek. Nonetheless, Marlboro received several bids, he added.
The Marlboro committee liked Andrew’s proposal because it preserved the educational mission of the campus (while also agreeing to keep a vast network of trails available for public use). “Some bidders would talk about an educational component but it was not their central concern,” Saudek said.
Andrew’s plan? To open a higher education institution, called Degrees of Freedom, that will target low-income and first-generation college students from charter schools across the Northeast, including the Boston area. The program would also serve some 11th- and 12th-graders through a hybrid “late high school, early college” model, he said.
In an approach well suited to the pandemic era, students will come to Marlboro in person for just three, two-week sessions over the course of a year. They will spend the rest of their time living at home, where they will take many real-time online courses and complete apprenticeships in fields including health, technology and finance.
“There are not many people who want to buy defunct college campuses,” Andrew said. “If we get this right, I can envision opening a number of similar programs in the shell of former campuses around the country.”
Marlboro, a private liberal arts college, announced last fall that it planned to close its campus this spring after years of financial struggles wrought by dwindling student enrollment. At least 17 New England colleges have shut down or merged since 2016, according to the news site Education Dive — most of them because they failed to attract enough students.
Andrew is the founder of the Democracy Prep charter network, which began over a decade ago in Harlem, and now operates schools in New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana, and other states (the network briefly ran a school in Rhode Island). Andrew has also served as a senior advisor in the Office of Education Technology in the Obama administration.
He says he devised the idea for Degrees of Freedom after watching a significant minority of Democracy Prep’s early graduates flounder in college. Slightly more than 15 percent “are not persisting in four-year institutions,” he said. Another 15 percent “are persisting but finishing with debt and a mediocre degree.”
Degrees of Freedom will prioritize low-income students for whom the traditional residential model might be a bad fit for any number of reasons.
Jamie McCoy, a member of Democracy Prep Harlem’s first graduating class in 2013, said she would have benefited enormously from a college model that was more flexible and supportive. “Low-income first generation students aren’t always sure what they are signing up for,” she said.
As a student at Tennessee’s Rhodes College, “I needed more supports than my peers,” she said.
McCoy ultimately dropped out of Rhodes, and finished her degree at Syracuse University. McCoy now teaches at Democracy Prep and is on the committee planning Degrees of Freedom. She likes the fact that the model will allow students to spend most of their time at home.
“It allows you that time to bond with your family,” she said. “Being at Rhodes was challenging because I couldn’t always afford to go home.”
The hope is that Degrees of Freedom will be funded through Pell Grants, federal college aid available for low-income students. Andrew would like to open in September with a group of about 125 students who will travel from “Dorchester, the Bronx, New Haven, Roxbury, and other Northeastern communities” on a rented Amtrak train for the first two-week in person session.
But several logistical hurdles remain. In addition to monitoring whether it’s safe to resume in-person instruction as soon as September, the purchase of the campus needs to be approved by the Vermont attorney general. Then the state must agree to allow the program to operate as a college (at which point it would start going by Freedom College rather than Degrees of Freedom).
Finally, and likely the most difficult hurdle, the program must get some kind of accreditation. Andrew hopes to preserve some form of Marlboro’s existing accreditation, and plans to work with both the New England Commission of Higher Education and the Distance Education Accrediting Commission.
“I have no idea where the accreditation question will go,” said Saudek, adding that “it will be a rather unique situation.”