VSCS State Funding Crisis

The following graphic, which was generated by the VSCS in 2019, shows how the State of Vermont has dramatically and systematically reduced the percentage of state funding for the VSCS from 1980 down to about 17% today:

The incredibly low percentage of state funding today is enormously hampering the VSCS’s ability to:

  • Keep tuition rates reasonable and competitive, which places enormous debt burdens on students and reduces the ability of the VSCS to attract new students.
  • Adequately support faculty and staff salaries and benefits, compromising the ability of the VSCS to both attract and retain high quality employees.
  • Adequately maintain facilities and purchase other needed equipment. In fact, the VSCS campuses today have substantial deferred maintenance.

These cuts in fact place Vermont at the bottom of the barrel in terms of state funding for public higher education. Most states fund their state colleges at significantly higher levels. Vermont’s meager 17% actually make Vermont sadly easy to pick out on bar charts like the following from the Pew Charitable Trust, which regularly assessing government support for higher education. In the following chart, look for the second-narrowest purple band, the band indicating the level of state funding, and there you will find Vermont (the arrow points to Vermont), and there you will find Vermont. Or look for the largest tuition level (the widest green band), and there you will also find Vermont:

It’s actually baffling to us why the State of Vermont would allow this to happen in the first place, especially when one considers these reductions are inconsistent with any reasonable reading of Vermont Statutes, which indicate that the state colleges should be funded “in whole or in substantial part”:

Financial Impact of The White Paper and the Closure Proposal

On top of the underfunding situation described above, it suddenly became known on April 17 of 2020, in the midst of the Covid-19 Shutdown, that the Chancellor of the VSCS, Jeb Spaulding, was imminently planning to propose to the VSCS Board of Trustees (BOT) that Northern Vermont University (NVU) and the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College (VTC) be completely and permanently shut down, in favor of retaining only Castleton University, CCV, and the Williston Campus of the Vermont Technical College.

Despite that fact that BOT appeared ready to support the proposal, it was fortunately withdrawn after one of the organizers of this group created a Facebook Group which quickly grew to nearly 10,000 members in two days and organized a massive Car Parade Protest in Montpelier Vermont on April 20, 2020, just three days after the proposal became known publicly.

This was in fact the second time that something like this had occurred: In 2019 the Chancellor offered up a “white paper” describing downturns in enrollment, and appeared to be on a straight path of shutting down the Lyndon Campus of NVU. This attempt was also blocked at the time by major public outcry, in this case from the NVU Lyndon Community.

Volumes could be written about why or how the closure proposal came about, what intentions were really behind it, etc. Here we omit such discussion, but simply note that it is hard to see how the Closure Proposal was consistent with the mandate of the VSCS in State Statute, which mandates that the VSCS, including the BOT as governing body, “shall own the real and personal property of the Castleton State College, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, Vermont Technical College, and Community College of Vermont, and of other State-operated institutions of higher education that may be established. It shall protect, preserve, and improve the properties and promote their use as institutions of higher education.” And in the same vein we note that state statute holds that “The Corporation shall not abandon, lease, sell, or dispose of any of the institutions under its control unless that action is specifically authorized by the General Assembly.” The BOT apparently had constructed a legal argument that it did have the authority, but we find it hard to understand how even if such a legal argument were actually valid in a technical sense that it would not still violate the spirit of the law, which seems to imply that the General Assembly is the proper body to consider such grave actions, given the enormous repercussions such a closure could have.

Whatever the intentions or justifications may be, there is no doubt that both the White Paper and the Closure Proposal will have an enormous adverse financial impact on the VSCS moving forward in terms of losses in enrollment, caused by the damage to the reputation and confidence in the VSCS these have caused. While there is no way to know for sure, we guesstimate these losses in the tens of millions of dollars.

Basic Arguments as to Why the State Colleges Should be Properly Funded

The economic benefits of the state colleges to rural Vermont are quite plainly obvious: Virtually every tax dollar spent on the state colleges stays in the community in the form of salaries, and hence effectively adds directly to the tax base. This benefit is then further multiplied by the spending of out-of-state students, who effectively subsidize the system. And many students of state colleges remain in the area, utilizing their enhanced knowledge to create and operate new businesses, adding further to the overall positive economic impact.

These benefits are all the more critical given the significant levels of poverty and lack of services generally in these regions. A significant number of Vermonters (over 11% according to a 2018 article in the Burlington Free Press) live in poverty, and a disproportionate number of these residents live in areas such as the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, which is served by Northern Vermont University. According to data presented in an article in Seven Days, the child poverty rate in this region is double that of the more urban of the state. Similar comments apply to the regions hosting NVU Johnson and VTC.

The benefit of having local access to affordable and quality, four-year, in-person higher education are also hard to overstateL Vermont is an especially challenging place to live in many ways. Long distance travel in Vermont is expensive and often dangerous due to the rugged topography of the state, rough winters, and highly varied weather patterns. And many students who attend the state colleges cannot venture very far from home for other reasons. Some cannot affordable to live in dormitories, some remain as integral workers on family owned farms or other businesses that are close to the land, and some are nontraditional students who cannot afford to attend college elsewhere due to job and family.

And so for decades the state colleges have served such students well, providing myriad benefits that extend far beyond the mere influx of dollars into rural communities, including:

  • Affordable college education that leads to enhanced salaries, and enhanced well-being in general.
  • The opportunity to socialize and network with students and faculty from a wide variety of locations around the Northeast and beyond.
  • Cultural experiences such as musical concerts, theatre, art exhibits, etc.
  • Access to athletic facilities.
  • Access to library facilities.

And finally, it is simply the case that many Vermonters simply cannot afford to attend private universities. It would be fundamentally unfair to deny them access to education, or require them to acquire unreasonably high debt loads to do so.

Where will the Money Come From?

In public discussions of this issue to date, one of the major issues that has arisen is the question of where the money would or could come from to restore state funding for the VSCS to its proper levels.

In particular, many have expressed concerns about the prospect of raising taxes. In fact, an increase in taxes may not be needed:

  • The roughly $25 million or so increase in annual funding that would be required to roughly double the VSCS appropriation is just 0.3% of the Vermont’s nearly SIX BILLION dollar budget.
  • There are solid arguments that certain reforms to Vermont’s income tax structure that may be beneficial on their own merits can also potentially fill the gap. The Public Assets Institute of Vermont, for example, released a study in 2017 that found that such reforms could save Vermont up to $50 million: https://publicassets.org/library/publications/reports/meeting-vermonters-needs/. When recently contacted, the Institute informed us that although some of the reforms have been enacted, there are still probably enough additional reforms to cover the VSCS shortfall.
  • And finally, it is apparent that Vermont has simply grossly deprioritized funding for higher public education, and so a general evaluation of state appropriations with higher education as a higher priority is in order.

By Ben Luce, on behalf of VSCS Thrive!