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University of Vermont president Suresh Garimella Monday proposed freezing tuition and room and board costs at current levels, the second year tuition costs will have remained constant, and a stark recognition as to the importance of keeping the cost of a college education within the reach of Vermonters.

As Mr. Garimella said, “It is not prudent, nor is it practical, to expect students and families to absorb continually rising costs.”

On the surface, the choice seems questionable. Despite its austerity measures UVM expects to face a $9.4 million shortfall this fiscal year. In years past, those sorts of shortfalls would have been absorbed by tuition increases; specifically to the university’s out-of-state students who pay roughly 80 percent more than in-state students. It’s an age-old practice.

But the higher ed market is undergoing a sea change and the price elasticity of demand is changing how colleges and universities compete. That’s particularly true in New England with our continuing decline in the number of students matriculating from high school.

The competition for out-of-state students is fierce. At the same time state governments have scaled back their appropriations to higher ed, a result of the Great Recession, and now, the pandemic.

Our colleges and universities are also caught in the cross-hairs of an on-line education revolution that Covid-19 has spun into overdrive. UVM and its brethren are in a battle for both relevance and sustainability.

Mr. Garimella said the school has launched a $150 million fundraising initiative to help with scholarships and graduate fellowships. The school will push for more research grants and private partnerships. There will be a continued focus on any and all efficiencies that can be found and, as always, there will be the need to have UVM faculty be part of the solution as well. Still, it will be a challenge to make up for what is being lost.

If there is a silver lining to be found, it’s that UVM’s circumstances will force a conversation that is long in the making. In the past, UVM has always made up the difference by raising tuition. It had no choice because the Legislature [and our governors] always chose to see how little they could do for higher ed, not how much. As a result, no state in the nation does a poorer job supporting its higher ed community.

We can no longer duck that dubious distinction.

Now that UVM can no longer depend on high tuition costs for our out-of-state students, we have to step up to the appropriations plate as a state. Our elected leaders need to treat UVM and the state college system as the assets they are, understanding that what we spend we get back; in spades if we sharpen our focus.

We can insist on standards, we can insist on change, but we cannot sit this one out like we have in years past, content to allow our higher ed institutions to drift where they may because they remain outside our “supportive” orbit. That helps neither side. In fact, it hurts both.

There has long been a disconnect between higher education in Vermont and the rest of us. It’s no one’s fault, per se. It’s been a default position. Easy. Cheap. But this disconnect lessens the ability and the inclination to establish the research and development ties that potentially strengthen the state’s economy at all levels. It’s one of the few arrows we have in our quiver.

Mr. Garimella may feel he has little choice but to freeze tuition costs as a matter of keeping UVM in business long term. And he doesn’t. That doesn’t mean we continue to sit in the bleachers, tossing peanuts at the players.

We are those players.

by Emerson Lynn

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