Lawmakers Ponder Fate of Orphaned College Records | Off Message

Lawmakers Ponder Fate of Orphaned College Records


  • Rob Donnelly
The Vermont Agency of Education wants to unload student academic records from the now-closed Burlington College onto the Secretary of State's Office — which doesn't want them either.

Who should store and manage student transcripts when a colleges closes is no idle concern in Vermont. So far this year, three private colleges in the state have announced they will close this summer: Green Mountain College in Poultney, Southern Vermont College in Bennington and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland. St. Joe's announced last week that it will shut down after a failed campaign to stay open.

The Agency of Education has managed Burlington College's records since the school closed in 2016. At the urging of the agency, the Vermont House Education Committee drafted a bill that would transfer the orphaned records to the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration by August 1. That's a division of the Vermont Secretary of State's Office. 

The bill is intended to ensure that other colleges on the verge of closing make provisions to fund a permanent repository for student transcripts.

Colleges sometimes designate private vendors to take over the registrar function. Or they enter into "teach-out" arrangements with other schools.

The goal is to avoid "another Burlington College" situation, said Rep. Kate Webb (D-Shelburne), chair of the House Education Committee.

“Our interest in this is in making sure that the students have access to those records and that they are being properly managed and maintained,” Webb said.

The proposed legislation would require colleges to alert the Vermont Board of Education within five days of learning they have been placed on probation by an accrediting agency. 

Within 60 days of being placed on probation, the college would be required to provide the board with an agreement that shows it had set aside funds and made an arrangement with another college or entity to act as a "permanent repository for the institution's records."

If a college fails to comply, the Vermont State Archives & Records Administration would be the custodian of last resort. But it doesn't want the job.

State archivist Tanya Marshall, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Deputy Secretary of State Chris Winters are all against the proposal — and they specifically don't want the Burlington College records.

Winters likened it to one state agency — in this case, education — attempting to "dump" responsibility on another division of government. 

“I understand that it’s a real pain for them," Winters told Seven Days Tuesday, but transferring the Burlington College records "is not the right answer."

The Secretary of State's Office tried to prevent the current situation by urging the education agency to not accept the records in the first place, Winters said. “We knew it would end up in a mess like this."

Now the Education Agency contends that it is not an appropriate custodian for a range of reasons, according to Education Secretary Dan French.

AOE lacks a secure storage facility, does not have staff to retrieve records for students, and does not have statutory authority to charge a fee for the service, according to written testimony by French and AOE general counsel Emily Simmons. With its climate-controlled records facility, the Vermont Archives is the "appropriate" custodian, they maintain. 

The AOE also points out that the Vermont Archives already houses records for a number of defunct schools, including Windham College, Rutland Business College and the Rutland United States School of Professional Paperhanging.

But those archives see little activity, Winters said. "They are long gone so we get very few requests," he said. 

He sympathized with Burlington College students, saying they "are in a tough place" but suggested state government should not be asked to serve as an unpaid registrar for private colleges that go under. 

There are options, Winters emphasized. He noted that when Burlington's Trinity College closed in 2000, St. Michael's College in Colchester took over its records. Condos used a similar argument in making the case against taking custody of the Burlington College records. 

The records aren't public, he noted. "The Secretary of State’s office, and by extension the Vermont State Archive and Records Administration, has no role or responsibilities regarding postsecondary schools or their private records and should not have been brought into this discussion about Burlington College’s records by the Agency of Education," Condos said in a statement.

The House bill would attempt to limit the state's financial risk when it becomes custodian of last resort. It would authorize the Vermont Attorney General to seek reimbursement, including by putting liens on college property, to recover state expenses in connection with failure to comply with the proposed records provision.

It’s unclear whether the proposal will advance. The House Education Committee stopped working on the bill because it could not come to agreement with the secretary of state, Webb said, but it will resume discussion after the Senate sends over its miscellaneous education bill.