A bill that would provide free tuition to Community College of Vermont students with family or individual incomes under $100,000 has been greeted with a cold shoulder by legislators who think it’s unaffordable and in defiance of “fiscal reality.” That’s hardly surprising. The legislative budget game is little more than a competition for dollars. Advocates first make sure their own programs are fully funded — plus a tithe or two — before new spending, regardless of its importance, is considered.

The bill in question, introduced by Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addision, serves a variety of needs, primarily making college more affordable for low and middle income Vermonters, and establishing a workforce essential to a growing economy.

The challenge came last week when the Joint Fiscal Office attached a $5.9 million price tag for the first year of operation and a $6.8 million cost in subsequent years.

Senate Education Committee chair Philip Baruth, D/P-Chittenden said it was a bit like “wishing on the moon.”

But what Mr. Baruth also noted went more to the root of the issue: He was concerned that if the Legislature were to provide the free tuition to some of the CCV students that it might draw away students from Vermont’s four-year institutions. He wasn’t referring to the University of Vermont, he was referring primarily to Castleton University and Northern University [Johnson and Lyndon State] and Vermont Technical College.

The problem with that reasoning is that it’s politically driven. It’s an effort to protect what is in place, to avoid the tough discussions. It’s not solution oriented. The last thing the Vermont State College system needs is to have its regular appropriations request stamped okay, and then dismissed, with little discussion as to how it intends to deal with the demographics challenging all New England’s colleges and universities.

What is in place now doesn’t work. We have a state college system that is high in costs and low on outcomes. We have a preK-12 system with one of the lowest matriculation rates in the nation. That failure will add to our demographic woes if it is not addressed.

To Ms. Hardy’s credit, she was addressing it.

Would it cost us more? As an appropriation to CCV? Of course. But as a state, would it cost us more? That’s debatable.

The students targeted by Ms. Hardy’s bill are those on the financial and social edge. As often as not, they opt not to go on to college because of the expense. Each time one of those students can be convinced to get more education is a time when it’s more likely that person will get a better job, or will escape the state’s social services network. That’s cash in the state’s pocket.

CCV also has campuses in almost every Vermont county, meaning it is best suited to help each of our more rural counties address their labor needs, which makes them more attractive places to live and work. It may be — intended or not — one of the best directed economic development programs we could devise. Often, the only thing separating a student [or an adult learner] from a good job is the skill set they pick up in a higher education setting.

The problem we have in Vermont is that with a declining student population we can no longer afford to let any students slip through our fingers. Once upon a time, it didn’t matter, there were enough students to fill the classes and there were enough middle income jobs to meet the needs of students who didn’t go on to college. That no longer exists.

It’s also debatable that free tuition to CCV would disrupt things at the state’s other schools. In fact, getting more students into the CCV system could be exactly what the other schools need. We already know in advance that CCV graduates are UVM’s most successful student cohort, why would that not continue to be the case, and why wouldn’t it apply elsewhere?

But the primary thing to acknowledge with Ms. Hardy’s bill is that she’s pushing for answers, understanding that inertia is the enemy. With the peril that faces the state college system, and higher education in general, it’s not okay to do the same thing this year that we did last, and the year before, and the year before that.

It’s not “over the moon” to focus on how things can be improved. What’s over the moon is to do nothing.

by Emerson Lynn

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