The trustees for the Vermont State College system are staring at what is being called the “most challenging” start to a budget year the system has seen in recent memory. The unexpected part of the challenge is an increase in health insurance costs, anticipated to be in the $2 million range. It’s a problem because the state college system is starved for cash; having to dig into the system’s pockets for an additional two million dollars may mean forcing administrators to cut the number of those who teach, which, in turn, weakens further what has already been weakened,

Colleges will have good years and bad when it comes to expenses, planned or not. As with any business, the challenges are met through reserves, or simply weathering the challenge, or changing their structures to meet the expenses. Any of those options would be suitable for the state college system, except the system is beyond that. They’ve gone through their reserves, they can’t continue to weather a challenge that has no end, and structural cutting means cutting jobs, which means reducing a school’s offerings, which makes it less attractive to potential students.

Legislators will have before them the budget request from the state college system, and it will include the expected increase in health insurance. The temptation would be to require the educational system to make the necessary adjustments, which legislators have done in the past. At one level it doesn’t make sense to throw good money after bad if the state college system has the means to change the way it operates, but chooses not to. [It’s important to note that CCV and Vermont Technical College are exceptions, both are running in the black.]

The precariousness of the state colleges’ finances was what prompted VSCS Chancellor Jeb Spaulding last fall to go public with the white paper saying the state college system could not continue to operate as is, that change was demanded. But the change has yet to be proposed, except to ask for more money.

It’s largely a political issue. No one wants to see a college shut down. Or take responsibility for it. No one wants to see instructors lose their jobs. Or take responsibility for that. The status quo holds sway. Particularly in an election year. Politically, it’s easier to do nothing.

Regardless, the task for legislators is this: If they elect to give VSCS the bare minimum, thus forcing the system to absorb the health insurance costs, then the system has little choice but to cut jobs. A better way to look at the issue is to figure out the objective and then work backwards to find the solution.

The objective — above all others — is to increase the number of high school graduates going into the VSCS system. Presently, we have 40 percent-plus of our high school students not seeking more education. We can’t afford that. Not in today’s workplace, let alone tomorrow’s. Not with a student count that continues to decline. To grow the economy we need to increase the number of matriculating students.

That objective will not be met if nothing changes. It will not be met if we bleed the institutions dry, by withholding needed funds. What legislators need to demand is the “dramatic change” that Mr. Spaulding alluded to last fall, the change that was not forthcoming. A plan forward has to be put in place.

No one pretends that it’s an easy decision, or even obvious. But when the state college system gets hit with $2 million in unexpected costs, and its bank account is virtually empty, and when the only response is to raise tuition, which makes it more difficult to attract the students they need to attract to survive, then something has to change.

The longer we wait, the dimmer the outlook.

by Emerson Lynn

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