One of the planks of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign that has resonated most with progressives is his plan to make the first two years of college free. He has promised nothing short of a revolution in higher-education funding.
But his wife has some experience with university finance, and she certainly wasn’t operating from the Bernie playbook.
During Jane O’Meara Sanders’ tenure as head of Burlington College in Vermont, the tuition bill grew by more than 50 percent. But her financial legacy was more than just rising tuition: Ultimately, the school became embroiled in a financial fiasco that appears to have played a role in her departure.
Tuition cost $14,170 in March 2004, when Ms. Sanders was hired by Burlington, according to data collected by U.S. News & World Report. When she resigned, amid some controversy, in September 2011, it had risen to $22,410.
“All colleges’ [tuition] goes up,” explained Adam Dantzsher, who then served as chair of Burlington’s board of directors during Ms. Sanders’ tenure at the college.
Burlington students’ default rates also grew steadily under Ms. Sanders’ watch. Throughout 2004, less than 1 percent of all previous students defaulted on their loans. By 2011, that number had risen to 19.4 percent. In 2012, a year after Ms. Sanders’ departure, the so-called cohort default rate dropped to 7 percent.
Burlington College’s tiny student body, less than 300 people, means that even a few extra defaults can sharply skew statistics. And during Ms. Sanders’ tenure at Burlington, the Department of Education also changed the way it quantified default rates, a decision that slightly increased the default numbers for most colleges across the U.S.
Both of those factors may account for some of Burlington’s big jump in default rates, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a website for students to assess college and financial-aid options.
Neither the Sanders campaign nor Ms. Sanders responded to emailed queries about the tuition hikes or her tenure at Burlington College.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute.