Editor’s note: This commentary is by Brockton Corbett, who is a 2019 graduate of Northern Vermont University.
Last year, several colleges in Southern Vermont shuttered their doors — one of which was Green Mountain College in Poultney. Poultney happens to be where I grew up. Since the college was the biggest employer in my small hometown, many of my friends and family members were directly impacted by the closure. Green Mountain College was a small campus but had a large footprint on the town. It employed about 150 staff and faculty. The college drove up revenue at local businesses and introduced almost 700 potential residents to the town, county, and state every four years. Even before the pandemic hit, Poultney had to adapt to a new normal. The friendly faces of college students were mostly replaced by empty buildings, fields, and sidewalks.
In the last couple of weeks, there was a time that then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding planned on recommending the closure of three residential campuses within the Vermont State College System: the two campuses that make up Northern Vermont University and the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. There are several differences between GMC and the VSC, the most important being that Green Mountain was a small, private college that mostly served out-of-state students and the VSC is a college system, under-funded by the state, that serves mostly low-income Vermonters.
I graduated from Northern Vermont University in May 2019. As a first-generation student, I take a lot of pride in completing college. NVU was instrumental in this accomplishment, because they are accustomed to the needs of first-generation students who make up nearly 50% of the student body. I could talk for hours about the friends I made and the things I did (and learned) along the way. The notion of my alma mater closing is devastating. However, I acknowledge that, aside from the emotional piece, I have my degree and would be relatively unaffected. When it looked like the campuses were to close practically overnight, I reached out to professors and current students that I proudly call friend and heard firsthand how it would directly impact their lives. The closure of these campuses would throw thousands of logistical wrenches at students, faculty, and staff alike.
If the VSC does not receive emergency funding soon, this problem will only escalate. It needs an immediate $25 million dollar investment, the formation of a higher education betterment committee, and a long-term investment from the state to address the problems within the system, including low and declining enrollment rates and to quickly create contingency plans to keep all VSC institutions serving Vermonters.
I probably do not need to tell you that the state of Vermont routinely ranks among the lowest for investment in higher education, flip-flopping between 49th and 50th in the country with New Hampshire. This lack of investment means the mostly low-income students must pick up one of the largest tabs for public higher education in the world. Despite a history of meager state funding, the VSC does so much good for its students and alumni. What would it look like to reverse this tendency of funding? What if Vermont became No. 1 in the U.S. for higher education spending? What if we made tuition free to all U.S. residents? Would we see population trends reverse? Stronger communities? Happier people? I think so.
The lack of proper investment in higher education does not exist in a vacuum in Vermont. Vermont is a great place, but there are still many, many problems that need to be addressed. Of Vermonters, 40% do not have enough savings to cover a surprise $1,000 expense. Many do not have reliable access to the internet, let alone the ability to use it in a way that builds human and economic capital. Property taxes overburden homeowners, there is a huge shortage in child care slots, and we have the highest child poverty rate in New England. All the while, there is a statewide concern about the lack of population growth, which is a reasonable worry in relation to Vermont’s viability. There need to be incentives for people to move to, and stay in, Vermont. If the goal is to attract and retain residents, there need to be institutions that attract them, and wraparound services that make life in Vermont more manageable. This will take a lot of courage and savvy from leaders throughout Vermont, at the national, state, and local levels.
If I have learned anything in the last eight weeks, it is that Vermonters are incredibly resilient — and there is a huge commitment from Vermonters to Vermonters, that we can and will do whatever it takes to keep our communities strong. Once the current problem has subsided, and we can get together again, let’s use some of that time to address the systemic issues being highlighted by this crisis. Investing in a resilient, accessible education system that all Vermonters can be proud of would be a great place to start.