State colleges take first look at reform ideas

Jeb Spaulding
Jeb Spaulding is chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

At the summer’s start, officials with the Vermont State Colleges said they would face higher education’s mounting challenges head-on, and spend the rest of the year crafting a plan for systemwide reform. 

Two months into the process, Mike Pieciak, who chairs the VSCS long-range planning committee, said there appeared to be hardly any disagreement from stakeholders across the system about the challenges at play for the colleges. A white paper written by VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding outlining the system’s stressors – from declining enrollments and chronic underfunding to competition from online-degree programs – was only lightly revised Monday. 

“We almost breezed by those to get to: What are we going to do about it?” Pieciak said.

VSCS officials announced they were embarking on the project in June, and the long-range planning committee has been meeting throughout the summer, gathering feedback from the colleges’ leadership teams and faculty. Additional input sessions are scheduled throughout September across the system’s campuses. VSCS leaders hope to put a plan of action before the board of trustees by the end of 2019.

Officials have been careful not to endorse any particular path forward yet, and are still actively assembling information and ideas. But a few ideas are popping up again and again, according to a list of suggestions compiled from input sessions thus far.

A key theme so far? The system needs to do a better job eliminating redundancy in academic programming across its member colleges, and make it easier for students to transfer between VSC schools. Some suggested centralizing more functions to the chancellor’s office to cut administrative positions from the colleges; others suggested doing the opposite, and instead distributing chancellor’s office responsibilities between the schools.

The system is also dealing with substantial deferred maintenance needs, and consolidating the physical footprint of the colleges – especially as online-degree programs grow in popularity – has repeatedly come up.

And while a key premise of the white paper is that additional dollars are unlikely to come from the Legislature, many suggested asking all the same. Vermont perennially ranks near the bottom – if not dead last – in national rankings for state funding of higher education.

VSCS leaders are also looking outside Vermont for ideas, including Minnesota, where officials are also launching reforms to deal with declining enrollments.

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Some also suggested more novel ways to advertise the colleges – including marketing Northern Vermont University at Johnson and Lyndon as mountain biking or skiing colleges, or locating the Sanders Institute, a now-defunct think-tank created by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a VSC school to capitalize on the progressive presidential candidate’s national profile.

VSC trustee Karen Luneau said Monday that she’d been heartened to see, based on what people had suggested at the input sessions so far, that everyone seemed to agree ambitious reform was necessary. 

“There wasn’t a single meeting where people didn’t suggest – I would call revolutionary change,” she said. “There’s revolutionary change coming.”

VSCS officials have created a dedicated website to keep the public informed about the process, which includes the long-range planning committee’s meeting schedule, as well as materials compiled by the body. People can also submit their ideas to [email protected].

The VSCS includes Castleton University, Vermont Technical College, the Community College of Vermont, and Northern Vermont University. 

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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