Vermont State Treasurer Beth Pearce and former chancellor of the University of Maine system James Page have concluded the Vermont State College system will need anywhere from $19 million to $46 million to make it through the next school year. Legislators were advised by Ms. Pearce to aim closer to the $46 million figure than the $19 million.

No matter how the state college system is viewed, righting the ship will be a challenge and very expensive. The immediate problem is the expected enrollment at Northern Vermont University. According to the reports, mid-May enrollment at NVU was about half what it was the year prior. That’s a crisis for a system almost entirely dependent on student tuition. And it’s not a one-year problem; a low freshmen class number affects each of the following three years. It also becomes problematic for the freshman class the following year, a challenge that, most likely, can only be met if student tuitions are subsidized at a level high enough to get enrollment levels up.

Legislators have made it clear they will find the money to sustain the state college system through the next school year. It’s expected the majority of the money will come from federal assistance packages passed, or soon to be passed. The time between now and the end of the next school year is to be used to put a plan in place for what happens when the one-time money has been spent.

Former VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding must be saying to himself: “A plan? Now you [Vermont’s legislators] want to dig down and figure out how the state college system needs to reinvent itself to stay alive?”

Mr. Spauling, with the support of his trustees, made it clear more than a year ago the state college system would not survive its current trend line if the Legislature continued its paltry appropriation levels. Nothing of meaningful consequence happened. Mr. Spaulding essentially called the Legislature’s bluff when he announced the closing of NVU’s two campuses [thus merging with Castleton University] and the consolidation of Vermont Technical College’s campus in Randolph to its campus in Williston.

Legislators reacted as if they had no idea the problem had reached the critical stage, which is pure sophistry. They knew, they just didn’t act.

In an opinion piece last week Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P Chittenden, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, made the argument that the Legislature had the responsibility to step up and provide a permanent revenue source for VSC, one that would add roughly $20 million to the $30 million the Legislature already appropriates to the system. Problem solved, right?

The additional revenue isn’t conditional. Mr. Baruth makes it clear the system needs to survive, regardless, which is comforting to the communities of Lyndon and Johnson. There is, however, a recognition among the VSC’s new leadership that a sustainable future for the system includes substantial changes from the existing model.

A change to what? Maybe that should be made clearer to legislators before they “make permanent” future funding streams to proposals that look very much like what exists.

by Emerson Lynn

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