By Guy Page
Three private colleges in Vermont recently have closed. Vermont state colleges are hurting, too. Enrollment is in decline. Rising tuition has hurt competitiveness. Public confidence is the value of a college education is way down.
The “white paper” issued June 26 by the Chancellor’s Office of the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) paints a worrisome picture. But “Securing the Future” also offers strategies that may restore longterm viability to the four state colleges: Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College, Castleton University and Northern University of Vermont, the new name of the recently merged Lyndon State College and Johnson State College. The University of Vermont is separate from VSCS.
The private colleges that failed — Green Mountain College in Poultney, Southern Vermont College in Bennington, and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland — were more at the mercy of the brutal enrollment and cost pressures than the state colleges, which receive some state funding. Still VSCS faces serious problems:
- Historically weak demographics – the number Vermont high school graduates dropped from 7,000 in 2008 to 5,250 in 2018.
- Bottom-ranked State support – VSCS is at or near the bottom in state funding compared to other state college systems. In 1981 state assistance and “other revenue” were about 50/50. Now only 17% of VSCS funding comes from state government.
- Pricing itself out of competition – Vermont has the highest tuition of all state colleges, the College Board reported in 2018. Non-traditional, online learning also is exerting strong competitive pressure.
- Change is hard – “Our campus cultures, mature union contracts, and aging physical infrastructure do not lend themselves to rapid adaptation,” the white paper reports.
- Changing student preferences and attitudes – Confidence in higher education in the US has decreased significantly since 2015, more than any other U.S. institution that Gallup measures. One third of Americans no longer believe a four-year degree prepares graduates to succeed in a job.
- Disruptive technology and delivery – Vermont State Colleges can’t afford to not use advanced cyber tools in enrollment, administration and education, not to mention teaching these skills to students. But effecting change is expensive – possibly prohibitively so.
The proposed solutions
No self-respecting White Paper closes without suggesting how an institution can get out of the mess in which it finds itself. “Securing the Future” proposes:
- Lead a private-public partnership called “Achieve Vermont” to encourage high school graduates to pursue postsecondary education.
- Improve college retention and graduate rates by equipping staff to use national “best practices” and cyber tools created for this purpose.
- Market VSCS to students and employers as an attractive destination for Vermont high school students.
- Do a better job serving working Vermonters via workforce development initiatives, more online learning, and offering condensed seven-week semesters.
- Reduce costs through continued integration of services, as has already happened with the Johnson/Lyndon merger.
- Lobby the Legislature for more funding by showing VSCS value to residents and employers.
To read the entire white paper click here.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.