Jeb Spaulding & Martha O’Connor: Do we value public higher education for Vermonters?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, and Martha O’Connor, the chair of the Vermont State Colleges System board of trustees.

Gov.-elect Scott and the new Legislature have a lot on their plate in the new year. There is one big decision to make that can’t be put off. Will they choose to provide the funding necessary to place the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS) on a sustainable path or not? If the VSCS board of trustees or chancellor could decide, we would say yes and here is why:

The VSCS (Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College and Vermont Technical College) is the de facto extension of Vermont’s K-12 public school system into the college years. Our student body comprises over 80 percent Vermonters – no other Vermont college or university comes anywhere close to the number of Vermont students we educate. In fact, we enroll more Vermonters than all the other colleges and universities in this state combined. And, like our K-12 partners, we proudly serve a much wider range of students, from valedictorians to those who have struggled in school and, often, in life.

One big difference between the public K-12 system and the Vermont State Colleges System is the level of financial support each receives from the state of Vermont. Our public K-12 system receives one of the highest levels of taxpayer support in the country; our public higher education system receives one of the lowest. We have no quarrel with the longstanding commitment to providing substantial support for K-12, but the decades-long record of underfunding our Vermont State Colleges has taken a significant toll. That must change quickly before the damage is irreversible.

The legislation that created the Vermont State Colleges explicitly states that they will be “supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds.” But after decades of diminishing support, we now receive only 16 percent of our revenues from the state. Such extremely low state support is directly responsible for the Vermont State Colleges having one of the highest public in-state tuition rates in the country. And, that is a major contributor to the state’s lackluster college continuation rate.

Vermont has one of the very best high school graduation rates in the country, something to be proud of, but at the same time we have one of the lower rates of high school graduates going on to attend college – indeed, the lowest in New England. Even more concerning is the clear inequality in college continuation rates between the “haves” and “have nots” – only 38 percent of low-income Vermont high school graduates continue on to college, compared to 59 percent for non-economically disadvantaged graduates. That not only severely limits the economic and social prospects of too many Vermont families, it will become more and more of a drag on Vermont’s economy and human services budget. The sophistication level of most entry level jobs in today’s economy requires education beyond high school. That is why a healthy VSCS is critical if our state is to have a bright economic future.

It is not uncommon to hear from students who want to go to a Vermont state college but decide to go out of state because it is cheaper or, more significantly, decide not to go to college at all.


It is not uncommon to hear from students who want to go to a Vermont state college but decide to go out of state because it is cheaper or, more significantly, decide not to go to college at all. Such low state support also results in VSCS graduates, on average, shouldering as much debt as their counterparts who go to exclusive and much pricier private colleges. That is, in our opinion, indefensible.

The VSCS aggressively continues to reduce costs and become more efficient, while being careful to maintain and enhance our academic mission. Our salaries and wages have decreased by $3.6 million between FY14-16. We have hundreds fewer people on our payroll. Working with our union partners, we have significantly reduced the employer contribution into retirement plans, ended retiree health insurance as a VSCS benefit for new employees as of 2012, and new employees as of January 2017 will be placed in a high deductible health plan, all while keeping annual salary increases below those received by comparable public sector employees. System-wide consolidation of business functions is underway. Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges are being unified into a single entity (Northern Vermont University) in order to reduce administrative costs, while at the same time expanding student opportunity.

Despite significant challenges, our colleges continue to innovate for the benefit of Vermont. VSCS institutions are offering more non-degree certificate and continuing education programs. Employer partnerships are flowering. New technologies and connected classrooms are proliferating. New programs are being developed faster than ever, like CCV’s Certified Production Technician program, Vermont Tech’s software development and engineering programs that span entry-level certificates all the way through a master’s degree, and Lyndon’s statewide program for practicing early childhood educators. Johnson has recently been designated as Vermont’s premier public liberal arts college by the prestigious Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges. Castleton’s Center for Schools, the only entity of its kind in the state, provides professional development to over 1,400 Vermont educators in all 14 counties. All of these meet critical workforce needs and demands in our state.

It is impressive how much the VSCS has done with such undeniably meager financial support from the state. But we are rapidly approaching a tipping point. Access to an affordable and quality public higher education system is increasingly at risk. For our part, we have relentlessly employed our power and authority to meet our economic challenges. Now, the governor-elect and Legislature are in a position to stand shoulder to shoulder with us to put the Vermont State Colleges System on a sustainable path by providing a meaningful increase in base budgetary support. Otherwise, fewer Vermonters will go to college, the quality of the educational experience for those that do go will be eroded, and students will face even higher debt loads.

Those that know us know we are not alarmists by nature. But in this instance, we believe the current status of state funding for the Vermont State Colleges System poses the kind of impending crisis that warrants sounding an alarm.

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  • RE: “One big difference between the public K-12 system and the Vermont State Colleges System is the level of financial support each receives from the state of Vermont.”

    The other big difference is that Vermont’s public K-12 system is an effective monopoly and I hope that Mr. Spaulding and Ms. O’Connor aren’t making a pitch to require that Vermonters must attend Vermont colleges if Vermont is their primary residence.

    • From my many discussions with the Chancellor and the BOT Chair I know that requiring Vermont students to attend the Vermont State Colleges is not reasonable or a goal of the VSCS.

  • Thank you to Chancellor Spaulding and Board of Trustees Chair Martha O’Connor for a great editorial. The Vermont State Colleges United Professionals joins the VSCS in their request for adequate funding of public higher education in Vermont. Our young people deserve an affordable education and our state deserves an educated population. Beth Walsh, President of the Vermont State Colleges United Professionals.

  • Leo Hutchins

    Wish the writers said how much they need and compared it to UVM’s situation. AP reported in 2015 that UVM received $42 million from the state of Vermont. How much do the State Colleges receive on average? Is there a fair distribution of money in the Chancellor’s mind? Can it be changed?

  • Tom Haviland

    When people talk about kids leaving Vermont, this is a big part of it. My son is going to the University of Maine – UVM was so expensive that it wasn’t a big difference.

  • Jamie Carter

    “One big difference between the public K-12 system and the Vermont State Colleges System is the level of financial support each receives from the state of Vermont. Our public K-12 system receives one of the highest levels of taxpayer support … our public higher education system receives one of the lowest.”

    And herein is not only the problem, but the solution. The state has limited resources and for years those resources have been shifted from higher education to primary education. This has led to the almost non-existent funding of higher education.

    When Scott Milne ran for Governor, it was estimated that every High School Senior could be provided a higher education for $225 Million. That’s a large number, and not one Vermonters can afford. However, if one considers that by shifting the staff to student ratio in out primary education system by 1 is a $75M difference the solution becomes very clear. Moving from 4.7 :1 to 7.7:1 would allow every Vermonter to attend.

    • Jon Corrigan

      Castleton facts: 1900 full-time students, over 75 programs of study, 14:1 student/faculty ratio, ave class size of 17, 29 intercollegiate athletic teams.

      Mr. Spaulding and Ms. O’Connor didn’t bother to offer up any concessions, such as increasing the student/faculty ratio, cutting some programs or paring some athletic teams. I’ll bet Castleton University could survive without ‘Adventure Recreation’, ‘Coaching’, and ‘Exercise Science’.

      Most of us (in the real world) recognize we have to make sacrifices and juggle priorities for some ‘need’ or ‘want’. It should be no different for the State College system.

  • edward letourneau

    I would like to know how many Vermont students arrive at college, needed remedial course work and how many who enter actually graduate and stay in the state. — If the object of this article is to build support for more tax money — which people like me will have to pay — its fair to ask what are the results we are paying for.

    • Peter Everett

      Best guess is that approximately 1/3 of incoming Freshmen require some form of remedial coursework before taking true college level courses. There are many factors that are involved in this high number. The problem is…is spending roughly $19,000/year per student in K-12 (highest in the country) worth it. Low class sizes aren’t producing the results we need. Standards are set very low by the “professionals” (???), it looks like there is success. Try comparing our educational standards and results to other, established countries. We rank very low (this may be why Silicon Valley wants to import employees). Don’t be fooled with the “we need more funds”. Get education out of the parenting business (that belongs at home) and stress real education that will benefit the country. These Snowflakes that are graduating can’t compete in the real world. Too bad if their feelings get hurt. Let them go to their “safe places” to whimper. The world don’t care about them.

  • Jamie Carter

    Let’s do some math…

    We have 80,000 students in the education system, our roughly 6700 seniors. Now, let’s say 1/4th doesn’t want to go to college and another 1/4th simply can not due to academic performance. That leaves 3350 students / year that would attend college. Considering at any given time there would be 4 classes going through the system that would lead to 13,500 students in the higher ed system. If we use the high end of tuition, at UVM, we would need $14,660 / student, or $197M per year. According to the VNEA brochure published in Jan. 2016 moving the student : staff ratio from 4.7:1 to 5:1 would save some $75M. To raise $200M would be simply reducing that ratio a bit further… well I’ll let you do that math.

    Full support is possible, just depends on priorities.

  • John Freitag

    The problem is there is only so much water in the well of ability of Vermonters to pay taxes . During his tenure in the Shumlin administration Jeb Spaulding did much to empty the well with many new programs including Pre-K, free tuition for high school students taking college courses, and prison education programs. He also tapped every source of one time funds in every nook and cranny to pay for expanded government services while not putting the money needed towards major needs like funding Lake Champlain clean-up.
    Jeb and Martha are creative people and they will need to continue their good efforts to streamline and find efficiencies in our State college system. The well for new taxes is simply dry,

    • Walter Carpenter

      “The problem is there is only so much water in the well of ability of Vermonters to pay taxes.”

      Imagine if we had a well where the water was replenished because it kept running and the state college system was affordable for students so that it could keep educating students who would then replenish the well. I also do not see how other nations or provinces, such as in Canada, can make their colleges either tuition free, or excessively affordable while Vermont students (as in most other states) graduate with student debt practically for life. Vermont is a great place to live (and I have lived in other states) and work, and it would be even greater if we could somehow crack this problem.

  • When the state chartered UVM, the legislation left a door open for Norwich and Middlebury to join UVM and transition from their private status to public, state funded status. Obviously, neither institution took the state up on that option – and they have both done quite well. VSC may have began life as a state funded entity, but as Spaulding points out, today state funding is only 16% of revenue. Rather than try to increase that amount, I would argue for the exact opposite. Cut the cord with the state and become a private entity. Continue your efforts to consolidate. (Jeb Spaulding and his team have made good progress on the cost side of the equation.) Champlain College and a number of other private colleges are doing just fine here in Vermont – without state support. If the VSC board can’t envision going down that path, it is incumbent on them to offer suggestions for eliminating other state programs to provide funding you claim you need. For example, shut down VSAC.

    • Vaughn Altemus

      I don’t know much about Norwich. Middlebury is supported by tuition and an endowment. UVM is increasingly supported by out-of-state tuition and a very high in-state tuition. The VT State Colleges do not generally draw from the same pool of students as UVM and Middlebury. If they were able to “cut the cord” they could do so only by reducing the access of the student population they now serve, replacing it with students able to pay higher tuitions.

      How can anyone look at the decline in funding state colleges have encountered over the years & the vibrant educational communities remaining and argue the state system has been anything but commendably frugal?

      The state college system is often the one chance at higher education for VT students of modest means. Education spending is an investment. Students benefit from lower tuition. Society benefits from their increased productivity, productivity that for state college grads is much more likely to remain in VT.

  • Do we really need 6 colleges/universities in VT. Wyoming with approx. 40,000 less people has 1 college/university. Alaska has 4 with 110,000 more people than VT. It is time to consolidate/close some of these in my mind.