Vermont Colleges Look For Innovative Ways To Stay Relevant

Jul 5, 2019

Over the past decade, the number of high school graduates in Vermont has dropped 25%. In addition, fewer students see the value in a four-year college degree.

Local colleges are now competing for fewer students — and that's led some higher education leaders in Vermont to spell out ways to keep their schools relevant.

"There are tremendous and severe forces that are bearing down on higher education," said Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System. "And, you know, that’s evidenced by three colleges closing in Vermont just this year. But it’s not just Vermont, they're happening in the rest of New England and all over rural America."

More from Vermont Edition — In The Aftermath Of Three Colleges Closing [May 21]

The Vermont State Colleges System has launched a long-range planning effort to address a variety of challenges. The Secure the Future Project started recently with the release of a white paper written by Spaulding.

"It’s intended to set the stage for a conversation with our campus communities and the policymakers and public at large on what we need to do to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Vermont State Colleges System," Spaulding explained. 

"There are tremendous and severe forces that are bearing down on higher education." — Chancellor Jeb Spaulding, Vermont State Colleges System

Spaulding said the Long Range Planning Committee of the system's board of trustees has been tasked with collecting public input on ways to keep the Vermont state colleges relevant in a changing educational landscape.

The state college system includes Castleton UniversityCommunity College of VermontNorthern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College

"The Vermont state colleges, as the extension of the public school system and probably the single biggest preparer of entrepreneurs and workforce in Vermont, needs to be sure that we're ahead of the curve," Spaulding said.

According to Spaulding, much of the committee's work will start when students return to campuses in the fall. The project is scheduled to wrap up at the end of the year.

Sterling College is differentiating itself by taking a strong stance on climate change.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR File

But it's not just public institutions that are facing head-on the demographic, economic and cultural changes in higher education.

Sterling College, in Craftsbury Common, recently released a 10-year strategic initiative that doubles-down on the school's commitment to environmental sustainability. Sterling College President Matthew Derr said the school is refining its mission to explicitly address the effects of climate change.

"You can’t really advance that mission now without really thinking about biodiversity loss and the impact of the extractive economy and growth on our relationship with the natural world," Derr said.

While addressing what Derr calls a "climate emergency," Sterling's stance also makes it stand out to students with a similar passion and priorities.

Derr added that colleges exist to educate students, but must also play a role in bettering society. That includes, he said, stopping contributing to climate change through institutional practices and investments.