Initial Report of the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont
Vermont Business Magazine On Friday, the state’s Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont released their initial report. The recommendations include reducing the total number of colleges from four to two, leaving Community College of Vermont, with the other three institutions being consolidated perhaps as Vermont State University. This is similar to the failed attempt to consolidate the colleges offered by former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding earlier this year.
However, the report does not call for the shuttering of all but one campus, but does offer a stern warning that severe action must be taken right away. The committee also takes to task a lack of focus among state leaders and the very mission of the colleges, which it says should be more vocationally oriented.
The report states in part: "This is no longer a can that can be kicked further down the road, with hopes that the individual institutions and the Chancellor’s Office will come up with cost reductions substantial enough to achieve long-term financial sustainability without help from the legislature working in partnership with the governor’s office. After all, the VSC—or at least some of its institutions—are facing the very real prospect of insolvency. Should that happen, the state will be on the hook for substantial costs associated with teach outs, campus closures and the costs associated with shuttering or demolishing buildings, outstanding debt obligations, liabilities related to the sudden addition of recently employed faculty and staff to retirement and health care payouts, and other consequences. None of these costs will be offset by tuition revenue (at least from any institutions forced to close), the source of revenue that currently covers the bulk of VSC’s operational budget."
After the Board of Trustees of the Vermont State Colleges discussed the report today at their December Board Meeting, Board Chair Lynn Dickinson released the following statement:
“This is a pivotal moment for the Vermont State College System. The Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education has provided a clear roadmap to address the urgent needs of the Vermont State Colleges for now and into the future. We are grateful for both the support of state leaders and the diligent work of its Select Committee. This road map builds on the work of groups like the VSCS Forward Task Force, to collect stakeholder input and to thoroughly analyze the situation confronting the Vermont State Colleges System.
“The VSCS Board has received the Committee’s report and will be reviewing its recommendations in the coming weeks. Some of the recommendations are consistent with actions that the Board has already taken. The Chancellor will be working, in consultation with the Presidents, on developing an implementation plan as well as the decision structure that would be required if the Board were to adopt recommendations such as further consolidation of administrative services and submission of a proposal for a common accreditation for the residential colleges: Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College. I want to be clear that the Select Committee report does NOT recommend closing any of the VSCS institution campuses.”
Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny added, “the report released on Friday included a lot of stakeholder feedback and provides a thorough analysis of the financial and enrollment challenges confronting the VSCS. It emphasizes that transformative change for the system is vital so we can continue to serve our students and the people of Vermont far into the future.
“The report is a detailed blueprint for reform — and another voice stating in no uncertain terms that the colleges do indeed need more financial help from the state. This additional investment from the state will ensure the accessibility of education to all Vermonters that is affordable, high quality, and student-centered. Keeping our students and their ability to access higher education at the center of our work is key to change. This is one of the reasons why the VSCS requested additional bridge funding this year that will enable us to maintain our current offerings and services to students without tuition increases while we undergo these transformative changes.
“I’m encouraged by the response the VSCS has received from elected officials on all levels regarding our ongoing transformation. It’s clear that there is widespread support for public higher education and that all are anticipating the recommendations of the Select Committee. I’m reassured that there is acknowledgement from all stakeholder groups that the status quo will not continue to work for Vermont or Vermonters.
“The transformation that is underway under the guidance of the state and the Board of Trustees will be challenging – change always is – but I’m confident we are all working towards the same outcome of a state college system that meets the needs of Vermont and Vermonters.”
In its executive summary: the Steering Committee stated in part: "The problems facing the VSC System that the Select Committee was created to address have roots that span many years, are not caused by the pandemic (though it surely has worsened them), and require a coordinated and comprehensive response."
They call on the governor to take a more aggressive approach to the funding and structural problems. They also offer similar guidance to the "grand bargain" former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed at the beginning of the year that in order to save the system, radical steps, including consolidating the three residential campuses into one.
Spaulding had proposed closing the two Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, and Vermont Tech in Randolph Center and leaving the one campus at Castleton University.
It was that specific proposal, and the uproar it caused, which forced Spaulding to step down. The former president of Castleton, Karen Scolforo, also quit following rejection of Spaulding's plan.
The Steering Committee did not specify how or where the colleges should be consolidated and if campuses should be shuttered, but proposed at the very least that there should be a single administration for what would be one residential college.
In order to achieve it objectives, the Steering Committee has agreed on a series of priority recommendations, among them being:
1. The VSC System should be restructured and its institutions should be assigned clear mission statements, as follows.
a. Maintain the Community College of Vermont (CCV) as a separate institution with a mission to focus on exclusively sub-baccalaureate programming expanded to encompass a greater focus on workforce-relevant education and training and services to adult learners and to employers, including non-credit programming.
b. Unify the remaining three VSC institutions under a single leadership structure and accreditation. In the process, ensure that it serves a mission to provide affordable and accessible baccalaureate-level education, limited master’s programs in areas where the need for such programs is geographically dispersed (e.g., education, health care), and limited technical sub-baccalaureate programs in partnership with CCV.
c. Both institutions should be capable of delivering education to residents in ways that prioritize access and success. This means that students of all types—including working adults, underrepresented and low-income populations, and rural residents—have access to physical campuses, robust online education, and adequate student support services.
d. Ensure that the Chancellor’s Office retains the capacity to provide for systemwide leadership on academic integration and interinstitutional collaboration; coordinate with other institutions, state agencies, employers, and other key stakeholders; and assure that the benefits of scale across the system are realized.
2. The VSC System should move aggressively to coordinate administrative service operations. Although effective delivery of some services will require an on-campus presence, the System needs to develop a standard set of policies and policy enforcement coordinated centrally in order to capture the benefits of scale across the System. This requires thoughtful reorganization of the administrative structure, including reporting relationships, but it does not necessarily require a larger centralized presence as leadership for each service can be managed by personnel with appropriate expertise located at a campus. At a minimum, the VSC System also needs highly professionalized project management expertise to achieve a smooth transformation of administrative service delivery.
3. The State of Vermont should adopt a strategic approach to how it funds the VSC System. This approach should start with clear and specific objectives for its investments in the VSC System along the lines as those adopted by the Steering Committee and be accompanied by appropriate measures that help to assure that the state’s investments are aimed at achieving those objectives.
a. The precipitating conditions for VSC
i. Enrollment declines—declining numbers of HS grads
ii. History of low state support
iii. Increasing reliance on tuition revenues and escalating costs to students—affordability an issue
iv. Previous chancellor’s recommendation to close three campuses as a way of balancing the System’s budget
b. The response of the legislature
i. Pushback against the recommendations of the Chancellor
ii. Commissioned studies by the State Treasurer and Jim Page
1. Confirm (or not) the fiscal situation as presented by the System
2. Determine the level of “bridge funding” required to keep the System going until a plan for System sustainability could be developed and implemented
3. Allocated $30 million in supplemental funding to fill the immediate needs for the System
iii. Circulated an RFP seeking a consultant to assist the Select Committee in offering recommendations on how to increase affordability for students, access, retention, attainment, relevance, and fiscal sustainability, including the following issues:
1. The financial sustainability of the VSC system and its impact on institutional capacity to innovate and meet State goals and learners’ needs, including a comparison of higher education programs, delivery models, tuition, tuition-reduction ad tuition-free programs, and structures in other states
2. The current organizational structure of the VSC and public higher education in Vermont and its ability to promote student success
3. The alignment of VSC and the public higher education system in Vermont with workforce development goals, policy frameworks, and partnerships between businesses and institutions of higher education that are designed to meet the needs of employers and promote the public value of education
4. Collaboration among Vermont’s public higher education institutions to move Vermont toward increasing affordability for students, access, retention, attainment, relevance, and fiscal sustainability
iv. NCHEMS was awarded the contract to conduct this work.
g. The need for political will to lead the necessary changes
i. Uncertainty regarding locus of that political will.
ii. Assumption among stakeholders interviewed to date is that leadership must be provided by the governor working in concert with the legislature, but
1. The governor has not made VSC a priority (though has supported the legislature’s efforts to take the lead and provided an infusion of funds).
2. There has been a perceived lack of clear direction from state policymakers—now and historically—about what specific purposes the VSC institutions should serve.
3. Legislators in key areas defend critical employment centers in their districts, or in other rural areas, and will likely oppose some of the changes necessary to achieve sustainability if not handled adroitly.
4. Lack of guidance from the public and political leadership about the role they want VSC to play/the outcomes they want the system to produce.
iii. Perceptions from stakeholders interviewed to date is that the VSC board has not historically taken bold action.
iv. Lack of a strong network of large and influential businesses in multiple sectors in Vermont — “pull” from the business community is diffuse and weak, with little tradition of business involvement in education policy discussions
a. Business as usual is not an option, nor is incremental change to the status quo.
b. VSC is overbuilt for the size of its current student population—in both personnel and facilities.
c. In the face of unfavorable demographic trends, right-sizing VSC will require some combination of increasing enrollments among populations not currently being served and reducing the size of the enterprise—both employment and the physical footprint of campuses.
d. Neither the state’s higher education policies nor institutional practices are designed to meet the needs of underserved populations—adults and low-income students.
e. Compelling educational and political reasons exist not to close institutions but maintaining existing locations can only be accomplished by implementing substantial changes to institutional missions and functions and sharing across campuses.
f. VSC institutions’ policies are designed to serve institutional needs, not students’, and create barriers to student enrollment and success.
g. Vermont lacks a clear, strategic approach for how it provides funding to the VSC System that recognizes the role the System plays in achieving goals related to the needs of students and the state. The legislature and governor will have to more strategically allocate state resources to the VSC System, and to postsecondary education more generally, and in the process provide appropriate direction and incentives related to those goals.
h. It will be critical to identify the locus of leadership—and the ability to marshal the political will—that will be necessary to implement the Select Committee’s recommendations.
Criteria for Solutions
a. Summary of Necessities
i. Maintaining a physical presence in each of the sites where VSC has campuses although recognizing that the activities carried on at those sites will necessarily change.
ii. Sharing administrative services
iii. Academic “renovation”
1. Program array better aligned, including liberal arts (e.g., technical writing requirement for English majors)
2. Sharing of academic programs and resources across institutions
3. Delivery modes and innovations in credit recognition
4. New credentials and improved outreach to adults
iv. Cost reductions/sustainability that leads to improved affordability for students and the state
v. Delivery of student supports to ensure success
vi. Adequate funding support over a reasonable timeframe to achieve these large-scale changes.
b. Criteria for achieving the goals related to student needs
i. Students in all parts of the state will be able to access the full array of academic programs offered by VSC System institutions, or through agreements between VSC and UVM.
1. For some students, programs will remain primarily (or wholly) face-to-face, based on where faculty expertise is concentrated. Those programs will also be accessible to students attending other campuses in the system via online or other modes of delivery.
2. Some programs will be online (in whole or in part) rather than face-to-face.
3. The exceptions will be those programs that require considerable hands-on experience with specialized equipment.
ii. VSC institutions will ensure that programs are aligned with current and future workforce needs by
1. Leveraging evolving educational models such as stackable credentials (certificates) with clear labor market payoffs.
2. Working with local and statewide employers to develop meaningful internship and apprenticeship experiences for which students will earn academic credit toward relevant credentials and, where possible, wages that help cover costs of attendance.
iii. Students will be provided the full array of student support services they need to successfully take advantage of this array of academic services. Such support services will be available to students in-person and through other means designed to meet the different needs of different types of students. These supports will also include pre-enrollment career and financial planning to help students make informed decisions.
iv. Programs that require hands-on instruction will be provided in communities throughout the state where
1. Local employers can demonstrate a demand for program completers.
2. There is sufficient student demand to make the program economically viable. In cases where student demand is not sufficient to ensure economic viability, the program may still be offered if a
Source: MONTPELIER, VT – Vermont State Colleges 12.7.2020