Tyrone Shaw: Underfunding of state colleges must be remedied

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Tyrone Shaw, a professor of journalism, writing and literature at Northern Vermont University – Johnson.

Demonstrating clear and practical vision, the Vermont Legislature in 1961 created the Vermont State Colleges system. The enabling statute in part reads as follows:

“There is created as a part of the educational system of the State of Vermont a public corporation to be known as ‘Vermont State Colleges.’ The Corporation shall plan, supervise, administer, and operate facilities for education at the postsecondary level supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds.”

This statute is a legal prescription. Shall means must. The current level of state support does not come close to meeting that criterion, and in fact public funding for higher education in Vermont has declined steadily over the past four decades, from 49 percent in 1980 to the current dismal level of 17 percent.

For the 26 years I have been teaching within the Vermont State Colleges system, successive chancellors, boards of trustees, presidents, faculty, staff, associated unions and students have tried in vain to convince the Legislature to honor its statutory obligations.

Although some modest increases have been realized, they are by no means sufficient to turn this lamentable situation around. On the contrary, in the face of ongoing inadequate public funding, pressures at every level within our postsecondary system continue to grow despite our considerable efforts at both cost cutting and sweeping reorganization. And there have been consequences.

Vermont has won the race to the bottom nationally in terms of state funding for higher education and consequently to the top for tuition costs. Vermont has the lowest levels of college continuation in New England and the highest numbers of young people leaving the state. This is what decades of disinvestment have wrought. Meanwhile, funding for public colleges and universities in our surrounding states — our competitors — now stands on average at 30 percent, putting us at an ever greater disadvantage.

If we are to stop the exodus of Vermont’s youth to other states — many of those who attend college out of state do not return — we must reject the status quo that has given us a chronically underfunded state colleges system that relies disproportionately on tuition; that has driven many thousands of students deeper into debt with each passing year; that has put postsecondary education financially out of reach for many Vermonters; and that has contributed to depleted ranks of faculty and staff, which will inevitably begin to compromise our ability to deliver the education so vital to the citizens and future of Vermont.

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Have we somehow forgotten that for any healthy society, higher education is a manifest public good, the greatest antipoverty program ever devised? On average those holding a bachelor’s degree are likely to earn 66 percent more in a lifetime than a typical high school graduate, which translates to more than $20,000 a year.

At a press conference at the Statehouse on Dec. 19, Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding advanced a reasoned proposal to remedy this abysmal situation: that over the next five years state support for the Vermont State Colleges system — Northern Vermont University, Castleton University, Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont — be increased to match the levels of the rest of New England’s public higher education institutions. It would take an additional $25 million in appropriations to accomplish this, but Spaulding is proposing a step increase of $5 million for each of the next five years to bring us to parity with our competitors, thereby jettisoning the shameful distinction of being last in the United States in terms of public support for higher education. Were the Legislature to adopt this proposal, Spaulding said the VSCS is prepared to freeze tuition for a period of two years.

Continuing the toxic neglect of an institution crucially important to the economic, cultural and civic health of Vermont is unacceptable, and every Vermonter has a stake in seeing it reversed. With the chancellor’s proposal, opportunity has come knocking at the door of the Vermont Statehouse. Our house. It is an opportunity for the incoming Legislature finally to do the right thing: to live up to the vision of an earlier body of elected officials when they founded the Vermont State Colleges system nearly 60 years ago.

For the sake of all of us, it is time to open that door.


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