Elected officials will need to nearly double the state’s contribution to higher education if they want to ensure Vermont students have access to an affordable college education, according to the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System.
Last month, state colleges asked for their biggest funding increase in state history; they say the future of higher education is at stake if they don’t get the $25 million a year they’re seeking.
Northern Vermont University President Elaine Collins, who oversees a two-campus institution formerly known as Johnson and Lyndon state colleges, has an unusual adage to describe the financial situation at her school.
“Life is giving us chicken feathers. We’re making chicken salad. But I don’t know how long that you’re really going to get an essence of chicken with chicken feathers,” Collins said.
The "chicken feathers" in this case are the state funding that flows to the Vermont State Colleges System. Or, as Collins would argue, the lack of state funding.
According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers — an organization that tracks higher education in the United States — Vermont spends less per student on public college than any other state in the country.
Collins said it’s a statistic elected officials here need to reckon with.
“I don’t think that we are doing a service to our citizens if we are not treating them the same way that other states are treating their citizens,” Collins said.
State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding has asked the governor and lawmakers for that increase of $25 million per year, nearly double what the state contributes now.
“Make no mistake about it — if the state refuses to invest in its public education system for the post-secondary years, they are making a decision that they are OK with Vermonters not accessing a high-quality post-secondary education system at an affordable cost,” Spaulding said.
Financial conditions are already beginning to change the landscape in the state college system. According to Spaulding, over the past five years the schools have dropped a combined 200 staffers from their payrolls.
Spaulding said the $25 million increase would put Vermont on par with funding levels for state colleges in other New England states.
But not everyone is convinced that more money will alleviate the financial stress.
“It’s very easy to resort to the longstanding low-percentage support that the state colleges receive from the taxpayer,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe. “That does not address the issue of the number of students in our state college system.”
Ashe said it’s the declining number of students that’s at the heart of state colleges’ funding woes. Enrollment at state colleges last year was down by more than 10 percent from its peak, in 2010.
“I am skeptical that money solves the enrollment challenge,” Ashe says. “Money does not produce new high school students in Vermont.”
More money might not create new Vermont high school students, but Spaulding said an infusion of cash can, in fact, create more Vermont college students.
According to Spaulding, 40 percent of high school graduates in Vermont don’t pursue any kind of higher education, the lowest college continuation rates in New England. Spaulding said that statistic is in part due to low state support for higher education, which “translates into the highest tuition in the country.”
“And we’re seeing that that’s making it unaffordable for Vermonters to go on to post-secondary education at a time when it’s more critical than ever,” Spaulding said.
If elected officials increase state funding, Spaulding said colleges will be able to lower tuition rates. And if colleges lower tuition rates, Spaulding said then more Vermont students will be able to afford a college education.
However, Ashe said he’s skeptical that increased funding will solve the structural challenges facing state colleges.
Two years ago, Spaulding asked lawmakers for a $4 million increase in state funding. At the time, he said the dollar amount was “intentional.”
“It will eliminate a structural operating deficit that exists, despite the many proactive cost containment and efficiency steps the Vermont State Colleges System has already taken,” Spaulding wrote in a 2017 memo to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It should be a source of concern,” Ashe said, “when just two years later we’re being asked for such a large infusion of cash.”