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Monday, May 20, 2024

How much money would it take for you to leave Middlebury this fall?

The student body is now very familiar with Middlebury’s pandemic-related over-enrollment issues. We have previously editorialized and reported on how the consistently larger-than-usual student body over the past three years has affected class size, dining hall lines, parking spaces and housing. Middlebury has taken numerous steps to manage over-enrollment, including purchasing the Inn on the Green and using the Breadloaf campus for upperclassmen housing.

But the latest solution seemed the most poorly planned yet: Middlebury offered $10,000 to the first 30 juniors and seniors who opted to take a voluntary leave of absence for the fall 2023 semester and J-term. 

The email from Dean of Students Derek Doucet and Associate Dean of Students for Residential Life AJ Place informed juniors and seniors on July 31 of an “opportunity” that would, once again, enable the school “to accommodate a larger than usual number of returning students living on campus due to pandemic-related leaves.” 

While we appreciate that the administration is resorting to this incentive as a better alternative to more forced triples and housing students at Breadloaf, we feel that this program was ill-timed and poorly executed. The administration should have given students more time to ponder this important decision, better explained the gravity of taking the offer and mandated academic and career counseling for those who opted in. Even regardless of the timing and execution of the offer, paying students to take time off felt distasteful, to say the least. 

If Middlebury were going to offer this incentive, we wish they had done so sooner than just six weeks before the first day of classes. The timing of the incentive forced students to rush to make the decision, rendering them unable to coherently weigh the pros and cons of taking the semester off. Doucet defended the timing in an earlier email to The Campus, stating that students have been deciding to take a semester off later into the summer in recent post-pandemic years, so they offered this incentive to help speed along the process of electing to take time off.

Interested students were given only until August 3 — a mere 4 days — to complete the Google Form application for the leave, which simply required the applicant’s name, class year, ID number and an indication that their submission was binding. The form was live immediately, and the email stated that leaves were to be granted on a “first come, first served basis,” which might have pressured students who were intrigued but not set on taking a leave of absence to apply in haste. Additionally, we believe that the form’s specification that the decision to take the leave was binding was likely included so the college could get 30 committed students as soon as possible. The rushed nature of the form made it feel that the college was more focused on fixing its enrollment and housing issues than truly prioritizing students’ best interests. 

Taking time off is not a decision to be taken lightly, particularly as doing so impacts academic motivation, graduation time, job prospects and course options. It is a choice  that must be discussed with family, friends, student deans and academic advisors, as well as one that requires financial planning. A mere 4 days to decide and the first come, first served nature of the application placed unnecessary pressure on students and did not give them enough time to fully consider the decision and its long-term consequences.

What’s more, in the July 31 email, Doucet and Place did not point to or encourage academic or career counseling, nor did they make mention of resources for finding a job, internship, or experience for the fall. They also did not acknowledge the fact that a leave of absence is not always appropriate for everyone, a fact that was only pointed out in a later email from SGA on Aug. 1, which expressed concern for students who rely on the college for health services, health insurance or counseling. 

The administration should have mandated students to speak with their deans and academic advisors before filling out the form. They also might have suggested that students meet with the Center for Careers and Internships or Middlebury alumni to brainstorm ideas for how they might spend their fall semester away. They could have increased flexibility by accepting credits from other institutions for students who still wanted to graduate on time.

Middlebury is seemingly an outlier in resorting to this solution to over-enrollment. From our research, only one other university, Virginia Tech, has offered such an incentive in response to over-enrollment in recent years. Middlebury’s strategy resulted in a Forbes article entitled “No Room At The Dorm: As College Begins, Some Students Are Scrambling For Housing,” which prominently featured the financial incentive and the ugly truth of how the college has “chipped away” at fall enrollment.

Offering a financial incentive for taking time off hurts the college’s supposed goal of creating an equitable community, regardless of students’ economic status. The incentive is greater for students for whom $10,000 means more — students receiving financial aid, students who make $13.18 an hour on work-study and students taking on significant loans to pay for college. According to an email Doucet wrote to The Campus last week, students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, those receiving full aid and those on no aid, as well as all types of students in between, applied and took advantage of this incentive. Nonetheless, payment still goes against Middlebury’s ethos of being need-blind and welcoming to students of all socioeconomic statuses. 

Such a drastic move is emblematic of a larger problem. As explained in the email from Doucet and Place, the college was poised to be exceptionally over-enrolled this semester. The unusually high number of leaves of absences taken during the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to just 420 students graduating last May, with double the normal amount of students set to graduate in February 2024. Additionally, since the pandemic, fall semesters have tended to be more crowded than spring semesters, due to the unusually large graduating Feb classes and larger numbers of students choosing to study abroad in the spring rather than the fall. Last year, the administration offered $2000 to any student planning to study abroad in spring 2024 and willing to switch their plans to study abroad fall 2023 instead.

Over-enrollment at Middlebury has proven to be more pervasive than a semester-long or year-long issue. Middlebury has been consistently over-enrolled since fall 2021 when they notoriously housed students at the Breadloaf campus — a 25 minute commute from the main Middlebury campus. Band-Aid solutions aside, we hope that Middlebury will manage its over-enrollment problem so that taking drastic steps, like asking students to take a voluntary leave of absence only a few weeks before the semester begins, is not necessary. If Middlebury is to manage a larger student body, it must expand its staff, faculty, campus spaces and housing in order to guarantee the same quality of experience students enjoyed when the school had only 2,500 students.

We are glad that Middlebury didn’t resort to housing students at Breadloaf as they did in fall 2021 or put students in forced triples as many other colleges and universities did during the pandemic. We agree that in principle, taking a semester off from college can be an enriching and useful experience for students seeking to take a break or try something new. However, we are troubled that the over-enrollment problem had to become so dire in the first place. Paying students to take time off, like sending first years to Copenhagen, is contrary to the community-based, on-campus, liberal arts experience Middlebury advertises in admissions brochures. With severe over-enrollment and the band-aid solutions repeatedly used by the college, it is no doubt that Middlebury has changed significantly in the past few years. By offering the $10,000 incentive, Middlebury was asking students to accept money over the continuity of their education, all while forcing students to rush the decision and failing to offer or encourage the usage of resources — a bad look from an institution that supposedly promises four years of “a strong, diverse, and supportive community for living and learning.”