Our Opinion: Vermont must choose to compete

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As Montpelier considers funding requests from the Vermont State College system for fiscal 2020, a recent report is shedding light on the high cost of public short-sheeting higher education budgets across New England.

According to the report by the New England Public Policy Center, a think tank at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, real per-pupil spending for higher education in New England's six states was lower in 2017 than it was in 2008, when the Great Recession started.

In Vermont, which has underfunded its state college system for years, inflation-adjusted state spending decreased by 14.3 percent over that span. Vermont's higher education funding is just 17 percent of VSC's revenue, and only 1.7 percent of the state budget. Those are the lowest percentages of higher ed support in any New England state.

Those policy choices produce real consequences that limit access to education and reduce the supply of trained workers. The consequences are plainly evident in Vermont, and point to the need for dramatic change in education funding policy.

And the demise of at least two private small colleges in Southern Vermont, amid legitimate fears that more closures are possible, point to a need for the state to step in. Prudent, targeted state investment in higher education access and technical training would benefit needed workforce development and provide immediate economic assistance to towns that are losing millions in salaries and benefits, and hundreds of faculty, staff and students. The New England Public Policy Center report makes clear the status quo won't do.

"Research ... shows that reductions in state appropriations have resulted in higher tuition and fees, greater student loan debt, decreased resources for education and research, and fewer graduates and approved patent applications from public colleges and universities," reads the executive summary. "If the New England states wish to better meet the educational needs of the region's students and the workforce requirements of employers, policymakers will need to restore some of the reduced appropriations and safeguard public higher education against future budget cuts."

The cost can be quantified, according to the report: Every dollar in state spending reductions leads to a 17-cent increase in net tuition and fees at colleges and universities. At community colleges, the results are even more dramatic: Every dollar cut by the Legislature leads to an average 56-cent cut in instructional spending, the report says. The declining state support has hit community colleges hardest — an estimated 21,388 associate degrees not awarded over a 10-year period, according to the report.

Perhaps it's a coincidence, but according to data cited by VSC chairman Jeb Spaulding in his testimony before the House Education Committee last month, Community College of Vermont enrollment has declined over the past five years, from 3,186 full-time equivalent students in 2014 to 2,706 FTE students in 2019. That's a 15-percent decline over five years, and about half of VSC's total system enrollment decline over that period.

According to the presentation made by Spaulding, total student headcount has fallen from 11,868 in fall of 2014 to 11,189 in fall of 2019, and full-time equivalent enrollment has declined from 8,979 to 8,134 — 9.41 percent. That's not how you grow a workforce or convince young Vermonters to stick around.

One would think the state would be tripping over itself to invest in education and training so that it can grow its population, and its workforce. Area business leaders tell us at every juncture that they need employees to fill open positions. And the state needs additional tax revenue so it can afford the things it needs, such as opiate addiction treatment, green power infrastructure, the cleanup of Lake Champlain, affordable child care and "last mile" broadband incentives. But when it comes to investing in workforce development, we're told this is a small state with limited resources, and we can't afford to compete with Massachusetts and New York. Yes, this is a small state. And it's going to stay small, and get smaller, unless it chooses to compete.

Spaulding wants $5 million more per year for five years, growing Vermont's support of VSC to the New England average of 30 percent state revenue support over time. The House Education Committee is recommending a one-year commitment of $3 million with the assurance that it be used to hold tuition level for a year. Neither option offers the bold, ambitious steps the system needs to grow enrollment and the supply of trained workers. And that includes technical training which, in many cases, leads to careers that pay better than professions requiring college education.

This is not to suggest the state should spend first and ask questions later. Indeed, the Legislature and the Scott administration should take a close, hard look at every aspect of VSC's operating budget, expenses and degree programs, to determine the strengths, weaknesses and needs. Everything should be on the table, with zero sacred cows allowed. That way, there will be no excuses and no grousing when the second part of the plan — ramping up funding to drive workforce development and improve student access by lowering cost — is put in place.

And when that happens, those opportunities must be extended to Southern Vermont communities that are being hardest hit by a rising tide of private college closures.

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