Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Interview with Phil Scott. Republican for Lt. Governor

October 30, 2014

Interview with Dean Corren, Progressive/Democrat for Lt. Governor

October 30, 2014

Can Vermont's state colleges survive?

July 11, 2014

The Vermont State Colleges have a new chair of the Board of Trustees. Before the year is out, a new Chancellor will be occupying the Colleges (relatively) new Montpelier office, and with a little luck the system will have a new contract with its professors.

Now all they need is more students, more money, and a plan to ensure their survival.

And that's the easy part.

Because to devise that plan, the Colleges system (a single entity with five separate colleges and one plural name) first has to decide what it is, what it can be, and what it wants to be.

Or as the former (since July 1) chair Gary Moore put it, "we need to determine where the state colleges are going to go and what they"re going to do, and equally important, what things they can't do."

For all their troubles - falling enrollment, skimpy help from the State's treasury, uncertainty if not confusion about their mission - the State colleges will not die. They're too valuable, more valuable than most Vermonters probably realize, which is part of their problem. The State Colleges are where most Vermonters go to college. Right now, roughly 10,800 of them go to one of the three liberal arts colleges (at Castleton, Lyndon, and Johnson), Vermont Technical College, or the Community College of Vermont.

That's about two-and-a-half times more than the 4,200 or so Vermonters at the University of Vermont.

True, the majority of those State College students are at the system's fifth "campus," the Community College of Vermont, which has no single campus at all, but conducts classes at 12 locations around the state. Almost all CCV students are part-timers, as are all of their teachers (CCV is the only college in the country with no full-time faculty).

So as the term is commonly understood, these students are not "going to college." as are those who enroll at Castleton or Johnson State. They"re not living in a dormitory, hanging out at the college snack bar, playing (or rooting for) the school teams, or participating in other extracurricular activities.

They"re just taking a class or two.

But many of them end up transferring their CCV credits to one of the system's other schools, or to UVM, or elsewhere.

Those CCV classes cost $239 per credit, or $717 for a typical three-credit class. That's a lot cheaper than going to Johnson State, where a student taking a 15-credit load for the $9,600 in-state tuition is paying $640 a credit.

On the basis of tuition alone, UVM is actually cheaper than Johnson (or Lyndon and Castleton, where the tuition is about the same; Vermont Tech's is about $2,000 more). But many more students at the State Colleges can live at home or in inexpensive off-campus apartments. The State Colleges are the cheaper alternative, meaning they are not only where most Vermonters go to college, they are especially where most students from lower-income families go to college.

But still apparently too expensive for many students and their families to afford. That's one reason there are empty spaces at Johnson, Lyndon, and Vermont Tech, and Tim Donovan, the soon-to-retire Chancellor of the system, insists that this is no accident. Vermont, Donovan said, has "chosen as a state, maybe inadvertently." to keep tuitions high.

Tim Donovan, outgoing Chancellor of the Vermont State College system, talks with Jon Margolis about the status of higher education in Vermont

When the system began operating in 1962, he said, half the cost of educating the students came from state funds. Now the state puts up only18 percent, the 49th lowest percentage in the country. So low is the state's contribution, Donovan said, that if the Legislature increased it by half, Vermont's ranking among the states would rise only to 47th.

Vermont's "public policy choice." he said, "makes public higher education more expensive (to the student) than it is in most other states."

No problem, then. Just get the Legislature to funnel several million more dollars into the College system (up from this Fiscal Year's $24.5 million), reduce tuition, and all the colleges will be full to capacity.

Not hardly.

To begin with, enrollments are not falling just because there aren't enough students with money. There are not as many potential students at all, with or without money. Non-Hispanic white Americans are not having many children these days. And who else lives in Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, or eastern Upstate New York, home to almost all Vermont State College students"

"Throughout the Northeast, we are halfway through a projected eight-year decline in the number of high school graduates." said Chancellor Donovan.

Besides, despite passage of a bill calling for a study about increasing the state's share of higher education spending, the legislature is not going to funnel several more millions to the Colleges, and officials know it.

"We have to be realistic, 'said Martha O"Connor, the new chair of the Colleges Trustees. "The state has so many people looking for money for so many situations. We can't expect the state to bail us out of this. We can hope that they work with us looking for a permanent solution."

But neither O"Connor nor anyone else knows what the solution would be. Nobody at the Colleges pays much attention to the occasional suggestion that one college- usually either Lyndon or Johnson State, which are only 52 miles apart - could be shut down completely.

Without even getting into the political near-impossibility of such a move (one reason F. Ray Keyser became the first Republican in more than a century to lose the governorship was his plan to close Lyndon State), it would wreak economic havoc; all four campuses are vital to their local economies. Nor is there much reason to suppose that if one of them was eliminated, its students would switch to the other one. Many of those students would probably leave college altogether.

Cost-cutting doesn't appear to be a very productive option, either, because the Colleges seem not to be over-spending. Even the heads of the unions - United Professionals for the faculty and the Vermont State Employees Association for non-professional staff - don't claim that the Colleges are guilty of building up a bloated administrative bureaucracy.

The unions have their complaints. Castleton Professor Linda Olsen, the head of the United Professionals unit, said the union wanted the Colleges to "be hiring full-time faculty instead of relying heavily on part-time faculty." and that faculty salaries are "far below the national averages."

But nobody at the Vermont State Colleges is pulling in the big bucks. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Donovan was the lowest-paid head of a public college or university system in the country in 2010.

Like many another public higher education system, the State Colleges could also try to increase the number of out-of-state students, who pay roughly twice the tuition that Vermonters pay.

But this would seem contrary to the mission of providing a college education to Vermonters who cannot afford the more expensive schools. Donovan said that a greater percentage of young Vermonters finish high school than in almost any other state, but a smaller percentage go on to any college.

Roughly 7,000 young Vermonters graduate from high school every year, he said, but only 60 percent of them go to college at all, and half of them leave the state to do so. He called that an extraordinary waste of potential human capital.

There is room for more students at the State Colleges, and Martha O"Connor thinks better programs will attract more students.

That seems self-evident, but some worry that if "better" simply means, "more marketable." that approach poses a danger to the Colleges. Because "more marketable" in turn often means "more vocational" - classes designed to train students for particular professions at the cost of a traditional liberal arts education.

David Plezak, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Johnson State, who once taught at Lyndon State, said he worried that 'short-term thinking" based only on the need 'to put tushes in the seats" could end up giving short shrift to classes in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and even the pure (as opposed to applied) physical sciences.

Gary Moore, who will remain on the Board until February, said he hopes that doesn't happen. "I strongly feel we need to have well-rounded, well-educated students." he said.

O"Connor did not seem as concerned, but said this factor - like all the other questions facing the Colleges - had to be examined in context.

"We can't just look at this piecemeal." she said. "We can't just pick one thing and say, that's the problem. We have to look at the whole picture."

She's looking forward to doing that. "I"m not despairing over anything." she said.


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