Virginia Intermont College closes its doors

East Hall, Virginia Intermont CollegeVirginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA held its final graduation ceremony on May 4, 2014. The school had been in financial trouble for a while. The beginning of the end came in 2013, when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) terminated the school's accreditation. Although nobody ever confused VI with Harvard, this action was not taken because of academic standards. Instead, the problem was that VI had an unsustainable economic model. What this meant was, most of the school's revenue was coming from student tuition, and not from endowments and donations.

The SACS decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The prospect of the loss of accreditation scared away prospective students, reducing the school's revenue, and making it inviable financially. VI's administration attempted to solve the accreditation problem by merging with another institution, but a prospective merger fell through.

 One of VI's students during its 130-year history was my mother, Mary Elizabeth Lewis Broughton. She was there from 1938 to 1940. At that time, VI was a women-only junior college, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Elizabeth got a degree from what is now the University of Mary Washington two years later, and went on to a long career as an elementary and junior high teacher and guidance counselor. Elizabeth grew up in a small Virginia town with minimal educational resources, and would not have had access to higher education and a teaching career if VI had not existed. Of course, in those days, there were no community colleges, and it was possible to go to a private college without running up $120,000 in student debt.

Before turning into a four-year coed institution in the 1970's, VI was one of a chain of “finishing schools” that existed along what is now the Interstate 81 corridor. It was the last one to remain open. The other ones were:

Martha Washington College, Abingdon – closed in 1932. The building is now the Martha Washington Inn.

Marion College, Marion – Closed in 1967. Because of its affiliation with the Lutheran Church of America, it had an exceptionally good-looking student population

Sullins College, also in Bristol – Closed in 1976. The United Coal Company took over the property.

Southern Seminary, Buena Vista - Lost accreditation in 1996. The property was purchased by the Mormon Church, and is now Southern Virginia University.

I'm wondering what the disposition of VI's property will be. The campus has several heritage buildings. Buildings like this cost money to maintain regardless of who owns them, unless they get bulldozed. VI is also the custodian of the papers of Tennessee Ernie Ford, who was born and spent the first part of his life in Bristol.

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