A first draft of a study charting a future course for the Vermont State Colleges System anticipates significant structural changes and a cash infusion from taxpayers, arguing the changes are urgently needed to reinvent the financially troubled system.
The plan, the first draft of which is expected to be delivered to Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Legislature Thursday for feedback, is a first step by the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont. A second draft is due Feb. 12, with a final report submitted April 16, and public presentations and forums on the final report through May 31.
The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems is serving as paid consultants on the report.
The goal, said committee member Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, is a report that offers a solid roadmap for the future and a “call for action.”
“If legislators, business leaders and Vermonters see a clear roadmap that will truly transform the Vermont State Colleges in a way that’s innovative, exciting and financially sustainable, I think they’ll be willing to consider investing in that solution,” James said. “Then it’s not just a Band-Aid or a temporary fix or throwing good money after bad. It’s rebuilding our state colleges in a way that rebuilds our economy, reshapes our workforce development pipeline, helps communities, and, above all, offers students in every part of the state an affordable education.”
With that in mind, James called the draft report “an important milestone in an ongoing and very important conversation about how [VSC] can truly deliver what we need, and how the state can pull the right levers to make that happen. We can’t delay any more — it’s too important.”
TENTATIVE PLANSThe draft report proposes consolidating the accreditation and operations of Castleton University and Northern Vermont Universities, and potentially Vermont Tech’s campuses in Randolph and Williston, as one state university. The Community College of Vermont, with satellite locations in Bennington, Brattleboro and 10 other communities, would operate as it does now in both scenarios.
Combining Castleton, NVU and Vermont Tech could save between $20 million and $25 million, the draft said; taking Vermont Tech out of the consolidation would reduce that savings to an estimated $14 million.
The proposal assumes the system can find a combined $5 million yearly in new revenue and savings, chipping away at its operational deficit over five years.
That would include removing underutilized buildings that can’t be refurbished for current and future needs. Levasseur said the system has built up an estimated $108 million in deferred maintenance at its five campuses.
The system absorbed significant COVID-19 related operating losses this semester, losing tuition revenue as well as room and board from students who were unable or unwilling to live on campus.
The colleges reported enrollment of 10,447 this fall, down from 11,060 in fall of 2019, with CCV the only exception — its enrollment remained stable.
“Like other institutions of higher education, we’re facing declining enrollment due to the pandemic,” VSC Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said. “This has exacerbated our existing structural budget issues and we recognize, as do the elected leaders, that meaningful transformation is necessary in order for us to continue fulfilling our mission, for the benefit of Vermont. “
The system has requested a level-funded base appropriation of $31.2 million for fiscal 2022, plus $45 million in bridge funding to close an anticipated budget gap, “so that we may continue to transform the Vermont State Colleges System to best serve Vermont and Vermonters,” said Katherine Levasseur, VSC’s director of external and governmental affairs.
Against that backdrop, the committee’s draft report makes the case that now is the time for action.
“It is no longer possible for this can to be kicked further down the road, with hopes that the individual institutions and the Chancellor’s Office will come up with cost savings substantial enough to achieve long-term financial sustainability, without help from the legislature,” the draft’s executive summary says.
“To be effective, this response must involve additional funding that stimulates the needed transformation, yields reduced costs, and leads to improved affordability for Vermont residents attending public institutions in the state.”
Zdatny said some of the recommendations are already being implemented, including system-wide budgeting, consolidating administrative services, and moving to a single general education core across the system. “Other proposals, such as seeking a common accreditation for our residential colleges, will require careful consideration by the [Board of Trustees] in the coming months,” she said.
“I’m encouraged by the response the VSCS has received from elected officials on all levels,” Zdatny said. “I’m reassured that there is acknowledgement ... that the status quo isn’t working for Vermont or Vermonters.”
The select committee was formed to chart a new future for the system while the Legislature provided millions in “bridge funding” to assure its survival.
For decades, the state has maintained a low level of fiscal support — 17 percent of its operational budget in 2019-20 — for VSC. Former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding had warned the Legislature previously that its reliance upon tuition and fees and future projected enrollment declines put the system at risk.
When additional losses piled up after the COVID pandemic struck, Spaulding recommended closing Northern Vermont University’s two campuses and the Randolph campus of Vermont Tech. That proposal was withdrawn in the face of strong opposition, and Spaulding resigned; but the point about VSC’s tenuous financial state was made.
In a committee meeting Monday, state Sen. Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, argued against paring back funding requests for the system’s transformation “based on the fear it will land badly.”
“This is a time for realism and we haven’t had a dose of that in a while in the Legislature with regard to higher education,” said Baruth, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “This is an existential question for these campuses.”
With a nod to that likely request, the draft calls on lawmakers to write strategic uses for that potential investment into law.
“The list should be brief and include objectives that go beyond simply achieving financial viability and get to the heart of what the system and its institutions are expected to do,” the draft report says, suggesting affordability, equity of access and meeting workforce needs. Lawmakers’ actions could then follow the intent of those goals — for example, increasing direct aid or scholarship funds with the intent of lowering tuition costs.
Indeed, Zdatny said the VSC Board of Trustees recently set affordability and accessibility as “key strategic priorities,” with the goal of providing post-secondary education to all Vermonters from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. She said 83 percent of VSC students are Vermonters, 57 percent are first-generation college students, and about 3,000 are low-income undergraduate students as defined by Pell Grant eligibility.
“It is very easy to fall into the trap of assuming that every college student comes from a stable, middle-income family, that every student has a home to go to when residence halls shut down due to the pandemic, or that every student can afford a residential, four-year experience,” Zdatny said. “We serve first generation students, for whom a degree or credential isn’t accessible unless they can commute to school after work. We serve adult learners who are looking to upskill or earn a credential for the first time. And we serve Vermonters who can’t afford to pursue a degree anywhere but at a Vermont State College.”
“Our students lives are complicated,” she added. “They are new Americans, veterans, Vermonters recovering from addiction, and Vermonters who didn’t make it at a traditional four-year college. They are Vermonters who barely made it out of high school and years later realize the dream of a college education and moving their lives forward. They are Vermonters who have a chance to change their lives and break the cycle of poverty for their families, because they have access to a Vermont State College.”