Commentary: The Future of Vermont’s State Colleges

May 4, 2020

By John McClaughry

A year ago Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding circulated a white paper on the future of Vermont’s five-college system (not including the University of Vermont). A month ago he reinforced the worsening facts spelled out in the white paper in a letter to the governor and key legislators. On April 20 he went public with the recommendation that the VSC board consider closing down three of the VSC’s colleges: Vermont Tech at Randolph and Northern Vermont University at Johnson and Lyndon.

Not surprisingly, a furious resistance sprang up. The board accepted the chancellor’s resignation, and the future of the VSC system vaulted to center stage. What to do?

First, let’s return to the white paper’s analysis. Here (condensed) are six unavoidable facts.

  1. Steadily declining numbers of Vermont high school graduates, and overbuilt colleges.
  2. Bottom ranked state support (49th among the 50 states).
  3. Powerful competition, through curriculum offerings and discounted tuition prices.
  4. School plants built in another era, accumulated deferred maintenance, and strong union resistance to any change in “working conditions.”
  5. Competition from employers increasingly hiring and then training employees, as opposed to hiring employees who have attended a residential college.
  6. Costly reinvestment needed to keep pace with competitors offering new technologies.

The VSC believes it must find $25 million right now to avoid system insolvency, even if the three schools are closed next September. Finding a way to keep them open is an even darker prospect, because of the money requirements and the difficulty of attracting and holding students at a possibly doomed institution.

Six months ago this problem might have been manageable. But now, with the pandemic disruption, there will likely be no sugar daddy to keep alive this system as now organized. State government is facing a FY2021 all-funds revenue deficit of as much as $430 million.

Even if the shortfall were only half that amount, the state would confront an unimaginable fiscal crisis. Interest on state debt must be paid, and a millions more in unemployment assistance, but all other spending must be curtailed. Retirement fund contributions will likely be diminished. Capital improvements must be “paused.” The extent to which Washington will send program funds to the states, after printing an astounding $3 trillion in new money, is very uncertain. Tax increases? Get serious.

Vermont can likely not even put $25 million into perpetuating the current college system while a longer range solution is devised.

So far at least four alternatives have been put forward.

  1. Find a deep pocketed savior, if not Uncle Sam, then businesses partnering with the school (as Vermont Tech and GlobalFoundries), making use of new learning technologies and targeting niche markets (like meteorology at NVU-Lyndon, environmental living at Sterling College in Craftsbury, and “world learning” at the School for International Training in Brattleboro). Perhaps adaptively create a “condominium campus” that serves many different owners with varying activities but shared facilities. With the state’s grim fiscal and economic picture, taxpayers will not be available to be the savior.
  2. Incorporate the state colleges into a Greater UVM System (Richard Moye, James Condos). This would make UVM the flagship and the four state colleges its centrally controlled satellites. It would take an education czar with a mighty hammer to achieve this rearrangement of interests and redistribution of assets. It would surely put a crimp in UVM’s relentless campaign to build expensive new facilities.
  3. Create a lifelong “womb to world” system of child care, PreK-12 education, college, and career management. (Bill Schubart). This is probably too far-reaching and Big Brotherish to be given a try.
  4. Put two or three VSC campuses up for sale to an entity looking to have its own campus. Some years ago failing Parsons College (Iowa) sold out to Maharishi International University. St. Thomas Aquinas College bought a prep school in Massachusetts. Such alternatives may have a positive economic impact, but they are not likely to serve many Vermont students. Creation of a clone of College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, Missouri), a noted work-study college that graduates mostly non-affluent rural students with no college debt, deserves a look.

None of these alternatives can likely be achieved in one year. Perhaps there’s another promising alternative that has escaped my attention. I hope so.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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