At a recent "town meeting," Marlboro College professor Kate Ratcliff takes volunteers to recruit applicants from all 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico.
At a recent "town meeting," Marlboro College professor Kate Ratcliff takes volunteers to recruit applicants from all 50 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. - 
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One hint that Marlboro College may not be for everyone: the 6-foot-high wooden poles sticking out of the ground, lining the walkways. They’re guides for the snow plows, an ominous sign of the coming winter.

“I didn’t even know what a proper winter jacket was until I came here,” said sophomore Alex Quick from Pennsylvania.

Marlboro was founded in 1946 on an old farm in southern Vermont. It was built to be a different kind of college, where students direct their own learning. There are no core course requirements or traditional majors. Students spend their junior and senior years on a self-designed independent study.

“We’ve got this very small community that’s very close, with all people who are very invested in what they’re doing,” said Alessandro Pane, a sophomore from Maine. “It can make it a very intense environment.”

Marlboro is meant to be small – ideally 250 to 300 students. This year the college fell far short of its enrollment target. There are only 182 full-time students.

“Yeah, ouch,” said Brigid Lawler, the dean of admissions.

Marlboro is among many small colleges fighting for survival in a changing market. Private colleges have expensive campuses to run and tenured faculty to pay.  At the same time, due to changing demographics, they’re competing for a shrinking pool of applicants, not to mention students who have started to question the value of an expensive liberal arts degree. Over the past 10 years, around five small colleges have closed each year, according to Moody’s Investor Service. In the next few years, analysts expect that rate to triple.

Alessandro Pane, left, and Alex Quick, both sophomores, are among just 182 full-time students enrolled at Marlboro College in Vermont. (Amy Scott/Marketplace)

When Lawler surveyed admitted students to find out why they’d chosen not to attend Marlboro, they cited two main factors. One was the expense. With financial aid, the average student pays about half of the $50,000 sticker price, but many said they still couldn’t afford it. The other reason, Lawler said, was the size.

“It just felt too small,” she said. “To change that, we had to do something that was audacious.”

What the college came up with was the Renaissance Scholars program. Next fall Marlboro hopes to bring in 52 new students on full scholarships — one from every state, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico. The college will also increase financial aid for all current and future students.

“The choice the trustees had was either just let things continue to go as they're going, or invest in this Renaissance program,” said Phil Steckler, a trustee and business broker based in nearby Brattleboro.

To pay for that investment, the board decided to do what’s become almost unthinkable in higher education.

“We’re going to dive into our endowment to the tune of probably $8 to $10 million over the next four or five years,” he said.

The idea is to bring in enough new students that the college will become more attractive to future students who can afford to pay. If it works, the scholarship program could be expanded to other countries.

“I think it’s an expensive move,” said Jeff Denneen, a higher education consultant with Bain & Company.

Marlboro is lucky, he said. Its roughly $40 million endowment is rare for small colleges. But it faces the same pressures as other tuition-dependent colleges: high costs and the perception that liberal arts degrees aren’t marketable.

“If I were them, I think I’d be looking more at, first of all, how do we do a better job of retaining the students that we have, and secondly I’d look at how do we make sure that we are really delivering what students value,” he said.

The college is working on retention. It’s teamed up with other colleges to offer more courses and internship opportunities. John Sheehy has taught writing and literature at Marlboro for 17 years. The board’s move has inspired the faculty to rethink the curriculum, he said.

“The faculty right now are really mobilized to make necessary changes in Marlboro that will make us a better college,” he said.

The students are mobilized, too. Marlboro is governed by a unique New England-style town meeting, where students, staff and faculty vote on proposals to, say, revise the sexual misconduct policy or extend the hours at the coffee shop.

At a recent meeting, a professor stood before a large map of the country, taking volunteers to recruit new students for the Renaissance program. Sophomore Helen Pinch adopted Massachusetts. Marlboro has been on the brink before, she said. There are legends about professors working for no pay and students doing maintenance work.

“Living on the edge just kind of seems to be in the Marlboro tradition,” she said.

It’s one tradition the school wouldn’t mind learning to live without.

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Follow Amy Scott at @amyreports