Opinion: Do we value public higher education for Vermonters anymore or not?

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Opinion: Do we value public higher education for Vermonters anymore or not?

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 9:37am -- tim

by Jeb Spaulding, Chancellor, Vermont State Colleges and Martha O’Connor, Chair, Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees Governor-elect Scott and the new Legislature have a lot on their plate in the new year. There is one big decision to make that can’t be put off. Will they choose to provide the funding necessary to place the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) on a sustainable path or not?

If the VSCS Board of Trustees or Chancellor could decide, we would say yes and here is why:

The VSCS (Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, and Vermont Technical College) is the de facto extension of Vermont’s K-12 public school system into the college years. Our student body comprises over 80% Vermonters – no other Vermont college or university comes anywhere close to the number of Vermont students we educate. In fact, we enroll more Vermonters than all the other colleges and universities in this state combined. And, like our K-12 partners, we proudly serve a much wider range of students, from valedictorians to those who have struggled in school and, often, in life.

One big difference between the public K-12 system and the Vermont State Colleges System is the level of financial support each receives from the State of Vermont. Our public K-12 system receives one of the highest levels of taxpayer support in the country; our public higher education system receives one of the lowest. We have no quarrel with the longstanding commitment to providing substantial support for K-12, but the decades-long record of underfunding our Vermont State Colleges has taken a significant toll. That must change quickly before the damage is irreversible.

The legislation that created the Vermont State Colleges explicitly states that they will be “supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds.” But after decades of diminishing support, we now receive only 16% of our revenues from the State. Such extremely low State support is directly responsible for the Vermont State Colleges having one of the highest public in-state tuition rates in the country. And, that is a major contributor to the State’s lackluster college continuation rate. 

Vermont has one of the very best high school graduation rates in the country, something to be proud of, but at the same time we have one of the lower rates of high school graduates going on to attend college – indeed, the lowest in New England. Even more concerning is the clear inequality in college continuation rates between the “haves” and “have nots” – only 38% of low-income Vermont high school graduates continue on to college, compared to 59% for non-economically disadvantaged graduates. That not only severely limits the economic and social prospects of too many Vermont families, it will become more and more of a drag on Vermont’s economy and human services budget. The sophistication level of most entry level jobs in today’s economy requires education beyond high school. That is why a healthy VSCS is critical if our State is to have a bright economic future.

It is not uncommon to hear from students who want to go to a Vermont State College but decide to go out of state because it is cheaper or, more significantly, decide not to go to college at all. Such low State support also results in VSCS graduates, on average, shouldering as much debt as their counterparts who go to exclusive and much pricier private colleges. That is, in our opinion, indefensible.

The VSCS aggressively continues to reduce costs and become more efficient, while being careful to maintain and enhance our academic mission. Our salaries and wages have decreased by $3.6 million between FY14-16. We have hundreds fewer people on our payroll. Working with our union partners, we have significantly reduced the employer contribution into retirement plans, ended retiree health insurance as a VSCS benefit for new employees as of 2012, and new employees as of January 2017 will be placed in a high deductible health plan, all while keeping annual salary increases below those received by comparable public sector employees. System-wide consolidation of business functions is underway. Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges are being unified into a single entity (Northern Vermont University) in order to reduce administrative costs, while at the same time expanding student opportunity.

Despite significant challenges, our colleges continue to innovate for the benefit of Vermont. VSCS institutions are offering more non-degree certificate and continuing education programs. Employer partnerships are flowering. New technologies and connected classrooms are proliferating. New programs are being developed faster than ever, like CCV’s Certified Production Technician program, Vermont Tech’s software development and engineering programs that span entry-level certificates all the way through a master’s degree, and Lyndon’s state-wide program for practicing early childhood educators. Johnson has recently been designated as Vermont’s premier public liberal arts college by the prestigious Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Castleton’s Center for Schools, the only entity of its kind in the state, provides professional development to over 1400 Vermont educators in all 14 counties All of these meet critical workforce needs and demands in our state.

It is impressive how much the VSCS has done with such undeniably meager financial support from the State. But, we are rapidly approaching a tipping point. Access to an affordable and quality public higher education system are increasingly at risk. For our part, we have relentlessly employed our power and authority to meet our economic challenges. Now, the Governor-elect and Legislature are in a position to stand shoulder to shoulder with us to put the Vermont State Colleges System on a sustainable path by providing a meaningful increase in base budgetary support. Otherwise, fewer Vermonters will go to college, the quality of the educational experience for those that do go will be eroded, and students will face even higher debt loads.

Those that know us know we are not alarmists by nature. But, in this instance, we believe the current status of State funding for the Vermont State Colleges System poses the kind of impending crisis that warrants sounding an alarm.