Fixing the State College System Will Be a Big Heavy Lift

Room rater! Best: Campion, okay background but great lighting. Honorable mention: Helen Mango; the pot lights give a delightful UFO vibe. Worst: Tie between Thomas “Total Eclipse Of The” Chittenden and Andrew “Blank Slate” Perchlik. C’mon, buy a poster or something!

Last year, the Vermont Legislature put off many unpleasant decisions by creating study committees. Well, one of them has come back to roost, and it brings a passel of bad news.

I’m talking about the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont, because the longer the name, the better the work product. The SCFHEV was tasked with studying the money-starved Vermont State College System and charting a path to sustainability. It issued a preliminary report in early December. That document was presented to the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon. (The preliminary report can be downloaded from Senate Ed’s website. The panel’s final report will come out in April, with some changes likely and a lot more detail assured.)

The high points, if that’s what they are: The system needs dramatic restructuring to cut costs; even so it needs a much larger ongoing commitment from state government; and it also has to cut tuition rates, which are staggeringly high compared to public institutions in other states.

Well, that’s quite a lot.

The path ahead is long and arduous. It will involve multiple committees in the House and Senate, discussion of politically unpopular cutbacks, a search for funding at a time when demands for state money are everywhere, and scrounging for legislative time in what’s likely to be the most demanding session in years. Like I said, a big heavy lift.

Besides that, hey, things are going great.

Sen. Phil Baruth, UVM prof and member of the Select Committee Etc., started things off with a bang. Fixing the VSCS, he said, is an”absolutely pressing issue for the Legislature.” He recalled the furor that erupted last year when then-VSC chancellor Jeb Spaulding essentially fell on his professional sword by recommending the closure of Northern Vermont University’s two campuses and the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph. He resigned soon thereafter.

The Select Etc. came up with a somewhat more palatable alternative that essentially accomplishes the same thing that Spaulding called for. No campuses would completely close, but all would face major cuts through consolidation of administrative functions and academic programs across NVU, VTC and Castleton University. The four would become a single entity named Vermont State University. The Community College of Vermont would remain a separate institution.

But even with severe cuts, the panel reports, the state would still have to dramatically up the ante on system funding. And not just a single-year boost in “bridge funding,” as lawmakers have promised. No, this needs to be a lasting commitment. “Since the 1980s, the state appropriation has been reduced from 51% to 17.5% of the VSCS budget,” the committee reported. “The result of this neglect has been higher tuition, increased student debt, cuts to staff, faculty, and programs, reduction of student access, and deterioration of infrastructure.”

All the committee asks for is that state funding “achieve parity with national averages.” Which would mean a great big increase in funding. Where it would come from, I have no idea. One of Gov. Phil Scott’s rhetorical binkies is “Cradle to Career,” which would include preschool, K-12 and public higher ed — with funding from the Education Fund spread across all three areas,robbing K-12 to pay the others. That would solve the VSCS problem, but it’s politically impossible.

Where else might the money come from? Up to $40 million per year could be realized with the recommended consolidation. And the panel also suggests revisiting the “portability” feature of Vermont Student Assistance Corporation support, meaning VSAC dollars could only be spent at Vermont institutions.

That’s only part of the answer, though.

Even if lawmakers and the governor sign off on the plan, VSCS still faces a challenging fight for students and dollars. Senate Ed chair Brian Campion noted that public colleges in New York State are aiming to slash tuition, and the growing monster that is Southern New Hampshire University is harvesting students into its distance-learning programs. This is why the panel recommends finding ways to lower tuition in order to be at least in the ballpark with nearby institutions. And when you combine the increased competition with Vermont’s declining college-age population, the chances of failure are great.

Senate Education is likely to be receptive to the panel’s ideas. (Although new Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, expressed concern about the future of Castleton U football.) The real battle will be in the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which are besieged on all sides with pleas for more funding. Buckle your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

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