MONTPELIER -- A group of students and educators took their first step in a joint effort to make higher education more affordable for Vermont students.
The Higher Education Subcommittee of the Pre-kindergarten to 16 Council held its first meeting Friday to explore solutions to the underfunded state colleges and the debt shouldered by Vermont students.
In the five remaining meetings before the 2015 legislative session, the group will examine possibilities such as lowering health insurance costs and living expenses for students, addressing institutional costs in college and retaining students, not only on campus, but in Vermont.
The committee, which includes college students, faculty, and representatives from the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., UVM and the Vermont State Colleges, was given three charges by the Legislature.
Under Act 148, which was passed by the House in May, the subcommittee will develop suggestions to "lower student and family costs and debt so that UVM and VSC are more affordable, return to the 1980 level of state funding for the student tuition support ratio for UVM and VSC, and restore money to the VSAC incentive program."
A report will be submitted to the Legislature by Jan. 15.
It's a lofty goal, committee members agreed, but one that is desperately needed by Vermont students.
Linda Olson, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers Vermont and a professor of sociology at Castleton State College, reported that the average Vermont student debt is $27,272, compared to a national average $24,443.
In 1980, half of the revenue for state colleges came from the state, said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, who sponsored S.40. The remaining 50 percent came from student tuition.
Since 1980, Pollina said, "there's been a major shift onto the backs of students and families."
In the two-hour meeting, the group squabbled over missed deadlines, the accuracy of presented data and the committee's purview and priorities. But Liz Beatty-Owens, a student at Johnson State College and the chair of the committee, reminded members to keep students' needs at the center of the discussion.
She has plenty of ideas, Beatty-Owens said.
"We need to look at more funding, affordability - the big-button issues," she said. "But we also need to get creative with other smaller issues that will affect students now."
Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a member of the House Education Committee, testified before the committee, "not as a representative, but as a 20-year veteran of Vermont schools."
In 2011, she said, after graduating from UVM and Vermont Law School, she had accrued $180,000 in student debt.
Buxton said she received a notice Thursday that her gas/fuel was to be shut off.
"The disconnect notice I got is just an example of how the general public I don't think really appreciates what a debt burden is to a student, not just after you graduate but for a period of time past that."
Buxton suggested several approaches to help students, including low or no interest loans, and decreasing living expenses and health insurance costs.
The state should afford Vermont students the "opportunity to access life and all of its opportunities," Buxton said.
On Thursday, the state and asked agencies to cut their budgets by 4 percent. But from the audience, Pollina and Buxton urged the committee to ask for the money they need.
"State governors and the Legislature have deliberately and consciously underfunded state schools. And then we wonder how we got into this hole," Pollina said.
"There are possibilities in finding momentum in supporting this issue," Buxton added in her testimony.
For the moment, at least, nothing is off the table.
"I'm ready to shake up the status quo," Beatty-Owens told the committee. "Because we've been screwing up, quite frankly, for the last 20 years and letting students down and we have to change something."