Smith and Toll: An investment in UVM is an investment in Vermont’s future

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Smith and Toll: An investment in UVM is an investment in Vermont’s future

Wed, 04/07/2021 - 4:13pm -- tim

by Shap Smith and Catherine “Kitty” Toll As longtime former state legislators, we know how difficult the budget allocation process can be. Inevitably there are more deserving projects than dollars to support them.

The recently passed American Rescue Plan—which comes on the heels of the CARES Act and brings a total of over $2.5 billion in federal dollars to the state of Vermont—has once again put lawmakers in the position of choosing which among a long list of worthy initiatives should be funded. 

What’s different is that this large infusion of one-time money is in addition to Vermont’s annual budget. While much of the funding is needed to address immediate health and financial challenges caused by the pandemic, we also have the opportunity to make expenditures that are lasting and transformative. That is why we support investments in the University of Vermont that will pay dividends to Vermont for many years to come.

UVM is facing significant COVID-induced financial hurdles. While enrollment numbers did not drop as much as initially feared, hard hit families needed significantly more financial aid for their students to come to the University and to persist in their studies. Combined with shortfalls from lost room-and-board, parking, athletics and event fees, UVM’s revenues are substantially lower this year than last. Projections for next year suggest that revenues will continue at levels that threaten the University’s financial sustainability.

These fiscal challenges present a threat not only to UVM but also to the state of Vermont, whose communities rely on the University to educate their doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers and entrepreneurs. Without a thriving UVM, the state also loses a source of many of its young people.

For these reasons, we believe that funds from the American Rescue Plan should be invested in programs that will have lasting impact for the University and Vermont. Here are just a few of the ideas deserving of support that UVM has proposed to legislators.

Scholarship Aid for Vermont Students. UVM recently launched the Student Opportunity, Access, and Recruitment (SOAR) initiative to create a permanent endowment to fund scholarship aid for students. The requested funds from the state would provide nearly $1 million annually in perpetuity for Vermonters. Supporting this worthy program will pay direct dividends to Vermont families from across the state long after the pandemic is a distant memory.

Support for UVM's Affordability and Accessibility Mission. UVM has implemented zero percent tuition increases for three years in a row and held room-and- board cost steady for two years. Support from the federal funding will enable UVM to continue to fulfill its commitment to affordability, a key benefit for Vermonters and a vital strategy for keeping UVM competitive. 

Expanded Technology for Remote Learning. While the pandemic forced the University to leap forward in its remote learning approaches, additional strategic investment will enable it to vastly expand experiential learning opportunities and touch every corner of the state. The ability to take courses remotely will allow students to participate in in-person internships anywhere in the state throughout their UVM careers, not just during the summer. These internship experiences connect them with potential jobs, and promise to add significant reinforcements to the Vermont workforce after students graduate.

Improving Air Quality, Ventilation and Energy Use Campus-wide. COVID has caused UVM’s leadership to examine the health and safety needs of everyone on campus and shone a light on the need to improve HVAC systems in aging buildings throughout the University. Air quality and ventilation systems are critical for mitigating the current pandemic and whatever comes next. One-time funding for this project would significantly improve environmental conditions and air quality in buildings that were built in another era.

Research on Communicable Diseases and COVID-19. Researchers at UVM are engaged in a wide range of research that will inform strategies for disease prevention and treatment in the future. Funding from the state will enable the University to leverage existing NIH funding to accelerate the pace at which life-changing pandemics can be confronted and prevented and bring these benefits home to Vermont—with special focus on older, more vulnerable Vermonters and those that live in remote rural areas—to stem the next health crisis.    

Green Energy for Vermont. UVM has ongoing relationships with local power companies, Sandia National Laboratories, and private firms, collaborating on solar energy projects, most of which are located on University property. In addition to generating renewable power, this work provides a means for UVM to research such critical areas as how to maximize the production of electricity from a solar source in the Northeast, where direct sunlight is often in short supply. Investing in this program will bring more Vermonters, in all parts of the state, closer to taking full advantage of a vital clean energy source.

UVM’s value to the state of Vermont—from its timely graduation rates that are among the best in the nation for a public university, to the role it plays in attracting young people to the state and retaining them, to the $1.33 billion impact the University has on the state’s economy—is well known.

Legislators face daunting choices in the coming weeks in deciding how to invest the once-in-a-generation supplementary funding the American Rescue Plan is bringing to the state. We empathize with the difficulty of saying no to many deserving projects. But we hope lawmakers will invest wisely in the financial health of an institution that brings so many benefits to the state—and in its transformative, forward-looking agenda.  

Shap Smith is the former Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives and a UVM Trustee. Catherine “Kitty” Toll is the former Chair of the Appropriations Committee in the Vermont House of Representatives and a UVM Trustee.