McClaughry: Vermont’s state college future

By John McClaughry

A year ago Vermont State College Chancellor Jeb Spaulding circulated a white paper on the future of Vermont’s five-college system (not including UVM). A month ago he reinforced the worsening facts spelled out in the white paper in a letter to the governor and key legislators. On April 20 he went public with the recommendation that the VSC Board consider closing down three of the VSCs colleges: Vermont Tech at Randolph and Northern Vermont University at Johnson and Lyndon.

Not surprisingly, a furious resistance sprang up. the board accepted the chancellor’s resignation, and the future of the VSC system vaulted to center stage. What to do?

First, let’s return to the white paper’s analysis. Here are six unavoidable facts.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

1. Steadily declining numbers of Vermont high school graduates, and overbuilt colleges.

2. Bottom ranked state support (49th among the 50 states).

3. Powerful competition, through curriculum offerings and discounted tuition prices.

4. School plants built in another era, accumulated deferred maintenance, and strong union resistance to any change in “working condition.s”

5. Competition from employers increasingly hiring and then training employees, as opposed to hiring employees who have attended a residential college.

6. Costly reinvestment needed to keep pace with competitors offering new technologies.

The VSC believes it must find $25 million right now to avoid system insolvency, even if the three schools are closed next September. Finding a way to keep them open is an even darker prospect, because of the money requirements and the difficulty of attracting and holding students at a possibly doomed institution.

Six months ago this problem might have been manageable. But now, with the pandemic disruption, there will likely be no sugar daddy to keep alive this system as now organized. State government is facing a FY-2021 all-funds revenue deficit of as much as $430 million.

Even if the shortfall were only half that amount, the state would confront an unimaginable fiscal crisis. Interest on state debt must be paid, and millions more in unemployment assistance, but all other spending must be curtailed. Retirement fund contributions will likely be diminished. Capital improvements must be “paused.” The extent to which Washington will send program funds to the states, after printing an astounding $3 trillion in new money, is very uncertain. Tax increases? Get serious.

Vermont can likely not even put $25 million into perpetuating the current college system while a longer range solution is devised.

So far at least four alternatives have been put forward.

1. Find a deep pocketed savior, if not Uncle Sam, then businesses partnering with the school (as Vermont Tech and Global Foundries), making use of new learning technologies and targeting niche markets (like meteorology at NVU-Lyndon, environmental living at Sterling College in Craftsbury, and “world learning” at the School for International Training in Brattleboro). Perhaps adaptively create a “condominium campus” that serves many different owners with varying activities but shared facilities. With the state’s grim fiscal and economic picture, taxpayers will not be available to be the savior.

2. Incorporate the state colleges into a Greater UVM System (Richard Moye, James Condos). This would make UVM the flagship and the four state colleges its centrally controlled satellites. It would take an Education Czar with a mighty hammer to achieve this rearrangement of interests and redistribution of assets. It would surely put a crimp in UVM’s relentless campaign to build expensive new facilities.

3. Create a lifelong “womb to world” system of child care, pre-K-12 education, college, and career management. (Bill Schubart). This is probably too far-reaching and Big Brotherish to be given a try.

4. Put two or three VSC campuses up for sale to an entity looking to have its own campus. Some years ago failing Parsons College (Iowa) sold out to Maharishti International University. St. Thomas Aquinas College bought a prep school in Massachusetts. Such alternatives may have a positive economic impact, but they are not likely to serve many Vermont students. Creation of a clone of College of the Ozarks (Point Lookout, MO), a noted work-study college that graduates mostly non-affluent rural students with no college debt, deserves a look.

None of these alternatives can likely be achieved in one year. Perhaps there’s another promising alternative that has escaped my attention. I hope so.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Vermont State Colleges and John McClaughry
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5 thoughts on “McClaughry: Vermont’s state college future

  1. John, if the downward spiral of enrollment in these marginal institutions continues at its current rate, what happens when 3 or 4 students show up in the classrooms? Will the institutions still function as if there was full enrollment with unsustainable expenses? Based upon past experience, my guess the legislature will plunge blindly along, tax payers be damned. Never ends.

  2. Our educational system is one of the largest debacles in our state. It’s a huge crony monopoly festival of epic proportions.

    Take our high schools. In our district we had the board doing things everyone was furious about. They said to the public, if you don’t like it, your solution is to take it out in the voting box. Maxine Grad and Kari Dolan are in our district.

    So they did! In a place that never says no to spending money for schools and anything else they vote that budget down with a vengeance never seen.

    After the election. The board said, “Well, we aren’t sure what the voters meant, it wasn’t clear.”

    18 other towns in our state did this

    The Vermont solution to this problem? Legislation comes up with level funding. Funding with inflation. Perhaps we should have another vote. (which is always conveniently not at town meeting or any other common election time.)

    The educational system in Vermont is corrupt, self-serving, out of control, misspending the teachers retirement and incestuous.

    They could care less about the teachers or most definitely your kids.

  3. How about cut $25 million? What’s the total budget? If it’s 10% that IS very doable.

    Could liquidate 2 campuses, keep one.

    We could pay associate professors 3x their current pay and get rid of all tenure.

    We could use lecture halls that are empty in every community, 6 days a week. They are also known as churches.

    We can cut many courses that aren’t needed.

    Vermont could be come a leading education center in the nation. Instead it want’s to promote the crony system currently in place. By making this last ditch plea it was a shoe in to get money from the state, perfectly orchestrated and perfectly timed.

    Many undergraduate classes are not high tech.

    Building facilities are over the top, at least for UVM. Staggering it has nothing to do with education, let alone “higher ed”

    Selling these campuses for 10 cents on the dollar might bring in some fiscally minded schools that produce results, at a reasonable price, for jobs the have great incomes (outside Vermont of course).

    The higher education problem is easily rectified. We much more concerned about keeping the crony structure in place. .

    Perhaps this is Vermont’s canary. The public trough is empty. The pockets don’t even have lint in them they’ve been picked so many times.

    Maybe our kids getting better educations outside of Vermont would be the best thing to every happen! People would get out of the borg and learn the rest of the world doesn’t mandate socialist ideals, they abhor them.

    Perhaps a complete educational collapse in Vermont would be the very best thing to ever happen. Our entire educational system from day care, pre-school, elementary school, high school and now clearly demonstrated, college is messed up beyond help.

    Everybody, everybody in the state knows our system is a complete farce. (I’m not talking teachers, I’m talking school system). The educational drivel that’s being forced upon our children is at times even worse.

    Perhaps the very best thing for Vermont is for them to close. Nobody anywhere wants to change, these the are the healthy consequences for everyone’s benefit. Close.

    We need a whole sale, new format for our educational system. Everybody knows it. Every one can plainly see, the emperor has no clothes on. Vermont’s school system is in Shambles.

    It’s much easier to fix things when you acknowledge the obvious.

    • Maybe the teachers are the only thing we truly need for education, they are great!

      But we have an education blob which sits on the money and power, and soaks up every dime the taxpayers have.

      How many “’employees”, beyond THE teacher are there for every classroom now, doing “make work” ?? .
      Try to find out….

    • Neil, to get rid of some colleges, put Jane Sanders in charge. She’ll put them into bankruptcy (eliminate them) and make mega bucks doing so. The Sanders need the money and Jane should have a job.

      it’s been done before in Burlington.

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