Commentary

Donald Laackman: Strong higher education sector creates a stronger Vermont

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Donald J. Laackman, president of Champlain College. Laackman lives in Burlington and is chair of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.

The recent announcements of college closures highlight the challenges faced by small private colleges in New England and particularly here in Vermont. I’ve seen setbacks like these hit other industries. Over the last two decades, businesses have been transformed by advances in technology or shifting demographics. What makes these misfortunes in higher education especially painful is that every day, those of us leading institutions see our students reaping the benefits of a college degree in their personal development and enhanced career prospects. The average college graduate will earn $1.5 million more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma. While doubtful voices in our national discourse and proposed cuts in federal budgets undermine the promise of higher education, there is little doubt among our graduates that their higher education enables them to contribute to our economy and become part of Vermont’s sustainable future.

College closures also negatively affect the close-knit communities in which they operate. Across the state, colleges contribute to the economic vibrancy of Vermont towns. They employ faculty and staff, make investments in local communities and recruit students from around the country to experience all Vermont has to offer. During my time in Vermont, I have come to appreciate the diverse opportunities offered to students by members of our educational community. The loss of even one institution creates a hole that other institutions in the state may not be able to fill, given our distinctive missions. Vermont’s remarkable network of colleges, which spans private, public, two-year, four-year, graduate and evolving models, has brought economic vitality to our state. But like many other regions in the country, we are not immune to changing demographics and shifting market forces. As leaders, the presidents of these institutions all understand that we need to change and innovate to meet today’s challenges.

As we face increased competition, colleges need to understand their mission and be able to communicate the value of that mission to prospective students. At Champlain College, our career-focused approach to learning means our programs and initiatives are constantly in sync with the wider world. Our majors are tied to in-demand careers, our core curriculum is innovative and interdisciplinary, our centers of experience give students a chance to work on professional projects in real-world settings and our robust online learning programs all position us for strength in this current landscape. I continue to be inspired by the boundless potential we at Champlain have as we work together to enable our students to achieve professional and personal success. We prepare students for the needs of today’s dynamic workforce and teach them to be lifelong learners.

We cannot rest, however, on our past successes. We need to build on the successes we have had in emerging fields, such as cybersecurity, game development and digital media, and we need to continue to develop programs, approaches and technology to meet the workforce needs of today and tomorrow. Champlain is in the midst of developing our plan for the College’s future, a strategic plan we’re calling Champlain 2025. We invited our entire community, including students, faculty, employers, parents of students, and online students, to engage in the planning work and believe, through this collective input, that we will build upon our long history of reinvention. These are times that will reward boldness and innovation.

We are also taking a hard look at our financial sustainability. Our partnerships with other Vermont institutions through the Green Mountain Higher Education Consortium have allowed us to realize sizable cost savings. As a share of costs, the greatest investment in the higher education sector is our people — the faculty and staff who focus on students in their daily contributions to the life of our institutions. As colleges and universities navigate these challenging times, strategies for managing these costs remain a critical tool. For example, at Champlain, we introduced a voluntary retirement program this spring, which is designed to support positive transitions for those opting to retire. We are also making targeted investments to hire faculty and staff in growth areas that will help define our future for strategic advantages.

New England, and Vermont in particular, has benefited from a strong, vibrant higher education sector that has imported talent to our region, created economic opportunities for our graduates and contributed to the economic vitality of our businesses and organizations. As my colleagues and I do the necessary work to lead our institutions through change, we ask that Vermont’s citizens join us in appreciating the value that higher education has brought to our state and supporting our efforts to continue to thrive. A strong educational sector means a strong Vermont.


Commentary

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