Commentary

Ian Balcom: A vision for higher education in Vermont

Editor's note: This commentary is by Ian Balcom, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon.

Now is the time to re-envision higher education in Vermont. What do we want it to be? How does it need to evolve? 

These questions have been simmering on the back burner since I started teaching at, then Lyndon State College, now Northern Vermont University-Lyndon 10 years ago. We saw then that the demographic trends in our state and region did not bode well for our enrollment numbers. We saw then that the funding model for higher education in Vermont put an unmanageable burden on the backs of our students to foot the bill of maintaining the colleges. We have put off making systemic changes as long as we could. The question before us is “what is the vision for higher education in Vermont?”

As it is widely known, Vermont ranks at the bottom of the pile in terms of per capita state funding for our colleges and universities. In other words, we contribute the least to higher education than any other state in the country. This chronic, decadeslong, under funding of our colleges and universities has brought us to this breaking point we are at today. 

Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s vision for higher education in Vermont calls for the closing of three campuses, each of which have been serving Vermonters for over 100 years. He calls for contracting public higher education in Vermont to being only Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, and University of Vermont.  

These actions would be such a profound misstep in the history of this state that it is difficult to under-state their significance. Closing campuses will:

  • Remove access to higher education for an entire region of the state.
    • Vermont State Colleges System students are often highly regional. Many choose the campus closest to their homes. Traveling over an hour to another campus is unsustainable and often dangerous. This alone will significantly decrease accessibility to higher education for young Vermonters, likely leading to a significant proportion of “first-in-family” students choosing not attend college. 
  • Remove an economic engine from the campus’ region. 
    • Every dollar spent in higher education produces more than a dollar in economic value. In terms of employment, our small colleges are often the only employer to offer diverse employment options. 
    • A college, even a small one, drives the local economy in ways that cannot be measured only in dollars. A long list of benefits is felt by the local community as a result of the college’s presence. Everyone from seniors to preschoolers utilize the campus for recreation, social events, cultural events, and education. While college students are currently footing the bill, the broader community receives benefits.
  • Send a strong message to our youth that Vermont does to support higher education.
    • With our demographic issues undermining entire economic systems in Vermont, we will accelerate our decline to a state where only retirees and second-home owners can live. 
  • Dismantle the physical infrastructure we inherited from our predecessors. 
    • Our campuses, even in the state that are, offer tremendous resources for ingenuity and creativity. Whether it is scientific research in the laboratories, art in the studio and galleries, athletics in the gymnasium, or learning in the classroom, we provide a diversity of opportunities unparalleled by any other institution in the region. Future successes will be denied to local children.

These are probably the more obvious implications of closing campuses. There are many more implications that should be weighed as we lay out a vision for a higher education system in Vermont for the times that we live in. 

Spaulding has said that he is only responding to a drastic decline in students coupled with a systemic underfunding of the VSCS by the state of Vermont. Through his “white paper,” he shared the data that is driving this type of thinking. Charts and graphs that show downward lines. Fewer students across the system, less money paid into the system by taxpayers, less money contributed by the federal government. These figures were a stark call to action, and yet they were also insight into the vision Jeb has for our college and universities. The vision is one that is driven by data. It can be summarized as “what can we afford to do.” 

I want to propose an alternative vision for higher education in Vermont. This vision is defined by the optimism for the future we seek to bring into the lives of our students. This vision sees Vermont as a destination for going to college for students around the country and the world. This vision harnesses the unique creativity and sense of place that often defines being a Vermonter. This vision recognizes the unique potential Vermont offers the country and the world to grow towards sustainability, while maintaining a meaningful connection to the natural world. This vision offers students an opportunity to embark on a future that is abundant, optimistic, while being grounded by the realities that govern the natural world. 

Going to college is an act motivated by a vision for the future. A vision that sees brighter days ahead. The calculation to postpone work and incur tremendous debts to go to college has, by and large worked out in favor of attending college. It is said that a person with a four-year degree will earn more in their lifetime than someone that does not. However, this math is beginning to change. With tuitions reaching record highs, it is not as easy to show that going to college pays off. This is especially difficult to guarantee when employment rates are high as they were before the Covid-19 pandemic and employers were hiring high school graduates. 

The vision I have for higher education in Vermont is informed by a “systems” view of how education impacts the broader economy. As the communities in Vermont that have already seen their local college close have witnessed, there are impacts to the region that extend beyond tuition revenue. Local businesses suffer, rental vacancies increase, cultural events disappear, the entire flavor of the community changes. These communities have had college students among them for over 100 years. The systemic changes to our culture as we remove college students from our communities are devastating. As the dynamic, energetic, creative, and optimistic people get removed from our neighborhoods, we can only expect our communities to suffer.

If we recognized the broad benefits our culture receives from keeping students around, we must be willing to extend our support to the colleges that bring them to us. The age where students and their families alone fund higher education in Vermont has to end. The fact that we are 50th out of the 50 states in terms of per-capita contributions to higher education is indefensible and is the primary reason we are looking at a future as bleak as the one outlined by Jeb Spaulding. 

As the Vermonter and systems thinking expert Donella Meadows said: “Addiction is finding a quick and dirty solution to the symptom of the problem, which prevents or distracts one from the harder and longer-term task of solving the real problem.”

The symptom of the decline in higher education in Vermont is less revenue. And yet this is the governing concept behind Jeb’s proposal to shut the doors on our colleges. If we value the systemic benefits we received from the presence of colleges in our communities, and the unique potential Vermont has to be a destination for going to college, in real dollars, we can break the cycle of tuition dependency that has encumbered the VSCS since the 1980’s. 

Tuition dependency by colleges is like being an addict. We cannot see the long term as we are forced to fixate on our revenue from one semester to the next. We cannot evolve and adapt as we are consumed by maintaining and retaining. We cannot seek out visions for our future while our vision is clouded by the drug of pessimism and decline. If higher education in Vermont is going to survive this latest round of misguided vision, we need to rethink the entire system and orient ourselves towards a vision of optimism.

The vision I see for higher education in Vermont has students coming from all over the country and world to go to college in Vermont. Vermont will be defined as a place where families send their children to go to college. It will become part of the “Vermont brand.” Vermont is uniquely positioned to make this reality. We can offer a place to go to college where students are:

  • Safe from the worst effects of climate change, mass shootings, and pandemics.
  • Connected to the natural world that still has functioning ecosystems, beauty and recreation opportunities. 
  • Highly motivated and dedicated professors and staff.
  • Student experiences, in and out of the classroom, that are at the core of VSCS professors’ jobs, not grant seeking and research. 
  • A social context that values local sustainability, interdependency, representative democracy, equal rights, and health care for all. 

Sending children to college in Vermont can be a choice many more families make if we fix the funding problem that has shackled the VSCS for decades. This is why I want to propose that Vermont institute free tuition for all Vermont residents for all the VSCS schools. Free tuition will put us at a competitive advantage and bring in more students to our communities. With these students, comes broad and significant economic benefits to the state. Each dollar we invest to support free tuition will bring in many more dollars to local, regional and the state economy. Families from out of state will be supporting their students’ daily lives, thereby transferring wealth to the Vermont economy from outside our borders. When fully realized “Vermont, where you send your kids to college” vision has the potential to diversify the entire economy of the state making it more robust, sustainable and dynamic. 

So the question is, will the VSCS continue to embrace a vision of decline and data-driven pessimism, or do we actively seek a future where Vermont embraces its unique potential to bring holistic leadership, skills, and vision to the future leaders of our country in a time that desperately needs it. 


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