Stakeholders explore ways to make Vermont colleges more affordable

A group of students and educators took their first step in a joint effort to make higher education more affordable for Vermont students.

The Higher Education Subcommittee of the Pre-kindergarten to 16 Council held its first meeting Friday to explore solutions to the underfunded state colleges and the debt shouldered by Vermont students.

In the five remaining meetings before the 2015 legislative session, the group will examine possibilities such as lowering health insurance costs and living expenses for students, addressing institutional costs in college and retaining students, not only on campus, but in Vermont.

The committee, which includes college students, faculty, and representatives from the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., UVM and the Vermont State Colleges, was given three charges by the Legislature.

Under Act 148, which was passed by the House in May, the subcommittee will develop suggestions to “lower student and family costs and debt so that UVM and VSC are more affordable, return to the 1980 level of state funding for the student tuition support ratio for UVM and VSC, and restore money to the VSAC incentive program.”

A report will be submitted to the Legislature by Jan. 15.

It’s a lofty goal, committee members agreed, but one that is desperately needed by Vermont students.

Linda Olson, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers Vermont and a professor of sociology at Castleton State College, reported that the average Vermont student debt is $27,272, compared to a national average $24,443. Olson also cited Digest of Education statistics that Vermont is ranked 49th nationally in state appropriation as a share of total revenue for public colleges. Vermont spends 8.6 percent of its total revenues on state colleges.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, advocated for the passage of a toxic chemicals regulation bill on Wednesday at a Statehouse news conference. Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger
Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington. File photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

In 1980, half of the revenue for state colleges came from the state, said Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D/W-Washington, who sponsored S.40. The remaining 50 percent came from student tuition.

Since 1980, Pollina said, “there’s been a major shift onto the backs of students and families.”

In the two-hour meeting, the group squabbled over missed deadlines, the accuracy of presented data and the committee’s purview and priorities. But Liz Beatty-Owens, a student at Johnson State College and the chair of the committee, reminded members to keep students’ needs at the center of the discussion.

She has plenty of ideas, Beatty-Owens said.

“We need to look at more funding, affordability — the big-button issues,” she said. “But we also need to get creative with other smaller issues that will affect students now.”

Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, a member of the House Education Committee, testified before the committee, “not as a representative, but as a 20-year veteran of Vermont schools.”

In 2011, she said, after graduating from UVM and Vermont Law School, she had accrued $180,000 in student debt.

Buxton said she received a notice Thursday that her gas/fuel was to be shut off.

“The disconnect notice I got is just an example of how the general public I don’t think really appreciates what a debt burden is to a student, not just after you graduate but for a period of time past that.”

Buxton suggested several approaches to help students, including low or no interest loans, and decreasing living expenses and health insurance costs.

The state should afford Vermont students the “opportunity to access life and all of its opportunities,” Buxton said.

On Thursday, the state asked agencies to cut their budgets by 4 percent. But from the audience, Pollina and Buxton urged the committee to ask for the money they need.

“State governors and the Legislature have deliberately and consciously underfunded state schools. And then we wonder how we got into this hole,” Pollina said.

“There are possibilities in finding momentum in supporting this issue,” Buxton added in her testimony.

For the moment, at least, nothing is off the table.

“I’m ready to shake up the status quo,” Beatty-Owens told the committee. “Because we’ve been screwing up, quite frankly, for the last 20 years and letting students down and we have to change something.”

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  • Walter Carpenter

    “I’m ready to shake up the status quo,”

    Me, too. The way we fund Higher education in this country and our state is criminal. I was in debt for ten years with student loans. My debt paled in comparison to what the students face now. Of course, the top administrators seem to make out pretty well.

  • Jay Eshelman

    Concern over the cost of VT colleges is just more political grandstanding. Last May, where was the concern when retiring Timothy J. Donovan, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges system since 2009, stated on VPR that 80% of VT education subsidies went to VT K thru 12 education, that 75% of VT graduating high school seniors were poorly prepared for “whatever comes next”, that only 50% of VT graduating seniors went on to college, and that 40% of those who do go on to college required remedial education before taking their freshman courses?

    And only now our legislators are saying The state should afford Vermont students the “opportunity to access life and all of its opportunities,……”.

    In my town of Westminster, we’re spending more to educate a 1st grader than it costs to send a student Castleton State College, or Johnson State or Lyndon State. And yes, that includes college room and board!

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    We’re putting the cart before the horse. As a former School Board member, it’s my opinion that Vermont’s Education Special Interests, including our Governor and State legislators, have co-opted Vermont’s education system in order to control one of the highest per student education funding mechanisms of any State in the U.S.. What good does it do to emphasize Vermont’s post secondary education subsidies when the few VT students who do enter our State colleges are so poorly prepared at such great expense?

  • Peter Gregg

    Ms. Buxton is a perfect example of the conflict Vermont faces in education and its’ future as a viable place for economic growth and sustainable jobs. To believe that a lawyer cannot meet their bills is absurd unless you take into account where they have chosen to live, very rural Vermont. Here is where one of Vermont’s problems and the spiral begins. Vermont does not give its’ state colleges the funding necessary to make college a good long term financial decision for students who would like to stay in Vermont, ergo, many leave after graduation to seek sustainable careers outside of the state. Those that stay behind say whoa, we need money to help us subsidize our choices and, besides, Vermont needs to attract businesses that employ at competitive salaries. Legislators then raise taxes to subsidize these choices, more leave because taxes go up and would be companies are now discouraged because of taxation considerations and a lack of qualified employees, the population declines, taxes increase again because the population base has declined and so on.

    Yes, Vermont needs to address state college funding, but, before that is done, or better yet, in conjunction with, our legislators need to take a hard look at its’ socialistic tendencies of the programs funded , their duplicity, their overlapping of programs and services, and their overall implications on the property/education tax system and how it really effects Vermonters as a whole.

    In short, find the money through fiscal responsibility and good management, both at the colleges’ and the state level, not through the idea of what is ultimately implied here, more taxes. If Vermont and its’ affiliates start down a road of thinking like a business perhaps businesses will be more attracted to our state.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The president of UVM gets $447,000 per year, plus a mansion to live in. Until students and taxpayers are willing to do something about that – UVM is just a money laundering scheme – taking money from the poor and middle class to give to the wealthy.

  • Matt Fisken

    College is a gamble, plain and simple. The longer you go, the bigger the risk.

    Unfortunately, the belief that a degree (or two or three) will guarantee success later in life is not always rooted in reality.

    The *information* provided at most colleges can be found without attending a single class, and possibly be acquired much more quickly and clearly by an independent learner. The *skills* taught by colleges may be specific, but that is not to say someone cannot attend a class a term while working full time get the same results.

    I think the unfortunate thing is that many college attendees are missing out on learning valuable life skills by spending so many years in a classroom and racking up debt like it is play money. What is the point of going to college, except to learn to spend money you don’t have with the assumption that it will all be fine?

    I think one possible solution is for high school guidance counselors to encourage students to take time off between high school and college to work in the real world and save money before attending college. It may be especially hard for bright, motivated students to consider that avoiding debt may be more useful in the long-run than cranking out the diplomas.

    It sounds like Ms. Buxton is in a difficult place financially if she is receiving a utility disconnect notice. I would also assume that with this information public, some kind soul(s) will step forward to help.

    I do wonder though, since joining the legislature and being let go from her job at VLS, has she been able to find work? Are any legislators currently unemployed?

    Maybe the problem is much less about the affordability of college and more about the dire situation in which some of our state’s colleges have found themselves (leading to downsizing), in addition to the tough job market for lawyers (among other specialized careers) in a small rural state like Vermont.

  • One small but useful way to save costs is to shift educational resource spending from proprietary and expensive textbooks to open access content. The open education resource world has become quite large and rich by now.

  • Pete Novick

    In New England’s six states are six state university systems, each doing about the same thing: feeder community colleges, one or more 4-year campus, graduate and specialty schools, etc.

    In every one of the six states, as well as at state universities all over the country, the costs has ballooned, and as they have ballooned, more and more of the financial burden has shifted to the students. States used to subsidize the cost of tuition from state tax revenue. Those days are long gone – never to return.

    I graduated from UMASS Amherst in the mid 1970’s. I had no student debt and I paid for my last two years of school out of my own pocket. A lot of my friends were doing the same thing and we all came from modest circumstances. I got a first class education.

    That would be a stretch for anyone these days.

    So, what’s the solution?

    Go big.

    The six NE states should figure out how to merge all six state university systems into one. The possible economies of scale so generated are huge.

    Is there anything out there that might serve as a model? As a matter of fact, there is. It’s the State University of New York which has around 64 separate campuses and a combined budget far, far in excess of all six NE state college systems.

    Here’s a list of all SUNY campuses.

    SUNY has the added value of delivering top quality college and university programs at costs more competitive than any single NE state.

    How do they do it? Your answer here:__________________________

    It would take real political leadership to break down the parochialism, but in the end, it could be worth it.

    Now, this is a topic well worth putting on the agenda the next time NE’s governors get together for lunch and golf.

    • victor ialeggio

      Nor are those NY university centers, state colleges, and local community colleges balkanized into separate funding and collective bargaining units — (suny includes all the institutions in cuny, by the way.) a student packaged for financial aid for one, for example, is packaged to all.

      whereas in vermont, when the pie is cut up each March, uvm gets $40+ million while all local the college centers (full of local vermont students, many of whom are first generation and who end up staying in the state after graduation) have to share $25 million or so. idiotic.
      the commitment to higher ed on the part of the state assembly is unconscionable.

      I write as someone who spent 20-odd years in the suny system.

  • Dave Bellini

    “… the general public I don’t think really appreciates what a debt burden is to a student…”
    Well, you could always get a FULL TIME JOB and work as an attorney to pay back loans….. Most Vermonters can’t afford the luxury of running for state representative. They have to be at work every week, year round. A brilliant attorney can earn plenty of money. It might mean putting off political ambitions for a while.

    As to Vermont State Colleges:

    1. Consolidate Castleton, Lyndon and Johnson. Move it all to one location.

    2. Eliminate the waste of tax dollars sent to UVM and send that money to the new state college. I agree with Rosemary and think her point is understated. We send money to petulant Prima Donnas who are living in a reality TV show at tax payer expense.

    3. Quit building luxury scale facilities. Focus on academics.

  • Paul Lutz

    Not one mention of the insane salaries across the board on all colleges???? I guess they dont want to solve the problem as bad as they say.

    How much did the Mrs. Warren make teaching ONE class in a year???