Schubart: A response to commenters on higher education op-ed

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Bill Schubart, a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio and president of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the umbrella organization for VTDigger.org. This commentary is in response to a piece published on VTDigger.org on May 4 and first aired on Vermont Public Radio.

Dear Correspondents:

My VPR commentaries usually elicit 35 to 50 thoughtful responses, some supportive and some critical, as one would hope. I generally answer each individually but my recent commentary on UVM and the state college system required a longer, more thoughtful response. Most were supportive, and the roughly 35 percent that dissented vigorously raised points worthy of address.

First, I did not include CCV in the suggested integration as I wrongly assumed that its mission was more deeply grounded in geography than the other five systems. I was corrected in this misperception by several and agree that if integration were to happen, their infrastructure should be included.

I believe it is helpful to express one’s biases to provide readers with context for what is after all only an opinion. I believe in the power of good government and good leadership to improve our lives. I like practical solutions. I believe they are usually found in the complex center of our unique and individual biases. They call on leaders and thoughtful people to engage respectfully, to compromise, and to be willing to learn from one another and often to change opinions.

I have also decried the relentless polarization of wealth and employment opportunity for all but the well-heeled that has undermined our commitment to educational investment and to the economic aspirations of our young people. And lastly, a student with no access to dental, mental or physical health care or who comes to school hungry is, in my own teaching experience, usually distracted from study and learning.

Looking forward, I believe we will need to realign our aspirations more toward life’s less transient qualities than the consumer extravagance to which we have grown accustomed. We will probably pay more taxes but should require more accountability. I think our single most important community investment is in education and the wellbeing of our young.
In response to some of the feedback, I should add or clarify a few points.

I went to kindergarten and grade school in Morrisville, Phillips Exeter for high school, Kenyon for two years, where I achieved little through no fault of theirs, took a working year off and finished my final two years with a degree in Romance languages at UVM, working the nightshift at IBM, and supporting a wife and two children. I was grateful for my access to UVM. It was affordable and I carried forward no debt. I then taught French for two years at Mount Abraham.

Though I don’t believe every student must go to college, I believe strongly in college education, but am troubled by the fact that much of current college work is remedial high school work.

Though I worry about both educational cost and quality, I’ve often said that the general decline in learning derives more from the intellectual culture in our homes than in our schools. Still I do feel that some teachers are complicit in the “feel-good” vs. “learn” dynamic.

The point of my commentary was only that I do not believe the trajectory we are on is sustainable. I believe that taxes must be the funding basis for K-12 public education and, to a lesser degree, higher ed. As students mature and approach employment age, they can bear some of the cost, depending on family circumstances, private scholarships, federal grants, and work-study programs.

Vermont has 620,000 people, 100,000 native students of all ages, roughly 25,000 non-native, higher ed students, and about 380,000 taxpayers. That constitutes one state college for every 100,000 Vermonters. The demographic math simply doesn’t support six college systems with attendant faculty, administration and infrastructure. Neither does our college and alumni obsession with building buildings as opposed to investing in exemplary teachers, endowing chairs and forging educational networks and digital libraries. When I look back at what made my education, I see only a few teachers who held me to higher standards than I thought possible and who were there for me when I needed help. They did not make me feel comfortable and I don’t see buildings.

Well-meant efforts by the state colleges to shame further legislative support from a state of 620,000 people and an HO-gauge economic engine, by correctly pointing out that our support of higher ed is among the lowest in the nation simply ignores economic and demographic reality.

Among the letters I received that were supportive of exploring the idea further, two were from private college presidents, some were from current professors within the state system, one was from an educational consultant to higher ed and several supported the idea, but did not want to harbor the five state systems within UVM because of its market ambiguity.

Finally, in an era wherein entertainment, opinion, journalism and advocacy have all merged into one sad mash-up called the “information age,” I would remind readers that I write only opinion pieces. I am not a journalist.

Many thanks for your patience with this over-long response and I am grateful that my commentary generated such articulate response – pro and con.

Best,

Bill Schubart

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