Lawmakers are negotiating a state budget for next year that could send $89 million to the Vermont State Colleges System, a once-unthinkable sum that would bolster the ailing schools and help pay for transition costs as the system embarks on an overhaul.
But nearly two-thirds of that funding is one-time money, provided in large part by a glut of Covid relief aid flowing into Vermont through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. And buried in the budget bill is also a demand that the system find $25 million in efficiencies over the next five years.
Leaders at the state colleges are celebrating the likely influx of cash as a historic investment. In a statement last week, chancellor Sophie Zdatny called it “an incredible signal of support for the Vermont State Colleges System, our ongoing system transformation, and our students.”
Faculty and staff, on the other hand, are anxious about the as-yet-unspecified austerity measures. And they argue that, without a commitment from the state to more robustly fund the system in the long term, the schools will scarcely be able to lower tuition enough to turn the tide on the system’s enrollment woes.
“I think it’s great that we’re getting so much money in this transition process,” said Linda Olson, a professor at Castleton University and the vice president of higher education for the American Federation of Teachers-Vermont. “But I just worry about what’s going to happen five years down the line, because we can’t make it without more money.”
By several metrics, Vermont ranks near the bottom nationally for how well it funds public higher education — and has for decades. Consequently, public tuition is among the highest in the country, and, despite stellar high school graduation rates, the state lags in the percentage of students who go on to college.
“It’s pretty evident that there’s a handful of states in the country that are really expecting students and their families to shoulder the burden of paying for public higher education, and Vermont stands at — or near — the top of that list,” said Brian Prescott, vice president for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a Colorado-based consulting firm.
The state colleges were brought to their knees last spring when the pandemic came to Vermont. Long plagued by dwindling headcounts and chronic underfunding, the pandemic’s financial impact was the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back. The then-chancellor proposed closing three campuses for good to keep the system solvent. A public furor ensued, the chancellor shelved his plan and resigned, and state leaders pledged new investments.
A special legislative panel was formed to propose reforms, and, in consultation with Prescott’s organization, it put out a slate of recommendations. Chief among them: the unification of Vermont Technical College, Northern Vermont University and Castleton University into a single entity (without closing campuses), aggressive investments in transition costs, and that the state increase by more than 50% its annual appropriation to the schools — from $30 million to $47 million. The consultants also recommended that the system tackle a $25 million structural deficit over five years, either through cuts or by finding ways to boost revenues.
The state budget, including any appropriations earmarked for the state colleges system, is not yet a done deal. The House and Senate must still reconcile their differing proposals, although the chambers are largely in agreement on all major aspects of the funding package for the colleges.
In many ways, the House and Senate proposals echo what consultants recommended — except where the state’s annual appropriation to the colleges is concerned. The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems suggested $47.5 million. Lawmakers are pitching $35 million, just $5 million more than the schools get now.
Both chambers also contemplate sending the system $20 million over four years for transition costs, and $21 million to deal with Covid-related financial impacts.
For now, the only outstanding differences between the chambers concern affordability and workforce development initiatives — the House proposed spending $20.5 million, the Senate countered with $12.4 million. Among the affordability measures both agree on: $5 million to cover the cost of attendance for 500 students in critical shortage areas such as nursing and plumbing. But, like most of the money offered by lawmakers, it’s a one-time deal.
The biggest unknown remains Republican Gov. Phil Scott. The governor and the Legislature are generally at odds over how to spend the Covid relief aid, and the administration would prefer lawmakers fund new investments in the colleges using state and not federal dollars. The governor has not yet issued any ultimatums — but neither has he ruled out a veto.
Scott had also proposed spending far less on the colleges: $50 million next year, $20 million of which would be one-time money.
Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Scott, said the governor is “willing to work with the Legislature on the amount,” although Scott wants to “better understand the need,” given the direct aid provided to colleges in the American Rescue Plan Act.
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