Stabilizing the Vermont State Colleges

As the Vermont Legislature is deep in its budget-writing stages, the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) situation should be at the forefront of their minds.

After hearing of the VSC crisis myself a few months ago, I stumbled upon a portion from the FY2010 budget proposal submitted by then-Governor Jim Douglas. It called for a 20 percent increase in funding for VSC, UVM, and VSAC. It also said the following:

“During the forty seven years since VSC came into being, the proportion of State funding for the System's general operating budget has consistently declined, from originally around two-thirds down to just under 55% in 1980 to less than one-fourth presently. In fact, the VSC now receives less appropriation per Vermont FTE in 2006 than it did in 1986 - these are pure dollars, not adjusted for inflation...For many years, the State of Vermont has been last in the nation, by a wide margin, in higher education appropriations per full-time equivalent enrollment (FTE). In 2007, our appropriation per FTE was $1,981- which is 25% less than the 49th state.”

Since then, it has only gotten worse.

To be fair, it is not for a lack of trying. Governor Douglas did indeed propose boosting funds for VSC, but the Democratic-controlled Legislature cut back these proposed increases. The same thing has happened more recently. Governor Scott has proposed several funding boosts to VSC over the last three years--many of which have been cut back (or made from “recurring” into “one-time” increases) by Legislative Leadership. [Still, thanks to these two Governors, the Vermont State Colleges have received millions more than they otherwise would have.]

Yet, all of a sudden, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe released a statement (in response to VSC’s now-withdrawn proposal to shutter three campuses) stating their desire to build a 21st century education system. That sounds an awful lot like what Governor Scott has tried to do over the past three years, but was refused the resources by the same legislative leaders who are now sounding the alarms. Unfortunately, it may be too little too late. With Vermont legislators facing several hundreds of millions in revenue shortfalls, it’ll be a challenge to find new funds to support VSC. Legislative Leadership should have listened to Governor Scott when we had budget surpluses and revenue upgrades.

Clearly, failures on the part of the Legislature exist here. The state colleges have been underfunded--period. And if there’s a single new funding priority that comes out of Montpelier this session, it should be resources for VSC. We simply cannot afford to jeopardize VSC’s financial situation any further by drastically underfunding investments in our students’ futures.

And to their credit, VSC has taken responsible action to try and address the problem. In 2018, they merged Lyndon State College and Johnson State College into Northern Vermont University to achieve cost savings. They also cut salaries, benefits, and staff--an incredibly difficult decision. VSC should be commended for their tough choices to keep these educational opportunities alive.

Nevertheless, there’s more VSC can be doing to modernize its system, boost revenues, and lower costs. In 2018, the Castleton University offered a fully-online MBA that could be completed in as few as 12 months. Options like these appeal to those looking to be competitive in the job market with advanced degrees, as well as those who prefer to learn virtually. Indeed, the graduate space is where VSC is the strongest: while undergraduate enrollment has fallen by 6 percent since 2014, graduate enrollment has spiked at VSC by 40 percent over the same time period. VSC should continue to offer flexible, online options in the advanced degree arena in order to expand its offerings to a wider base of prospective students. Further, as the world continues to go digital (especially in light of the distance-learning that colleges have adopted during the COVID-19 outbreak), VSC should try to get ahead of this trend with more online options.

Still, the bulk of the work is in the Legislature’s court. K-12 spending is now Vermont’s single-biggest expenditure at $1.8 billion annually--outpacing the annual cost of road repairs, pension liabilities, or general government--and has increased by several hundred percent over the last few decades. Higher education support has increased at just a fraction of that rate. The Legislature should look to ways in which we can reallocate future increases from bloated K-12 budgets into higher education.

The Legislature has its work cut out for it. But it also has an obligation to make right on the failed policies of the past--the policies of underfunding that got us into this mess.

This commentary is by Don Turner, a former Republican state representative from Milton, former House minority leader, current Milton town manager and longtime member of the Milton Fire and Rescue departments. He was a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.

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