One of America’s most expensive public higher education systems is about to get a whole lot cheaper — albeit temporarily.
The Vermont State Colleges System on Wednesday announced $16 million in new affordability initiatives, including a one-year free tuition program for degrees and certificates in certain critical shortage areas like nursing and child care.
Also included: scholarships for Vermonters transferring to a VSC institution from an out-of-state school and Vermonters who left college during the pandemic, and extra aid for state residents who are returning to school after not completing their degree the first time. About 54,000 Vermonters have attended college but left without a degree or certificate, according to Advance Vermont and the Lumina Foundation.
In a typical year, the system’s schools — which include Castleton University, the Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — collectively spend about $8 million to $9 million on institutional aid to students. The new grants and scholarships announced this week are nearly twice this figure.
But they likely won’t last.
The initiatives are largely funded using the glut of federal cash that flowed into the state thanks to Congressional Covid-relief packages, including the American Rescue Plan Act signed by Biden earlier this spring. And those are one-time dollars.
“If you are a Vermonter and have dreamed of pursuing a career in graphic design or in manufacturing, or you love being around children, and could see yourself as an early childhood educator — this is the time to act. This money will not be available perhaps after this year,” Joyce Judy, the president of the Community College of Vermont, said at a press conference held at Vermont Technical College on Wednesday.
The state budget crafted by lawmakers that was signed by Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday sent nearly $89 million to the system, more than twice the $30 million the schools usually get from the state each year.
The long-struggling system was brought to its knees financially last spring and briefly contemplated closing three campuses permanently. A public furor ensued after the closure plan was announced, and lawmakers have since plowed additional cash into the system to help keep it afloat and embark on reforms.
The new money in the state budget is intended to help pay for an overhaul that will see the system’s three four-year schools ultimately merge into one (existing campuses will not be closed), help plug Covid-related budget deficits, and boost affordability.
But while lawmakers have been generous with federal cash, they have loathed to commit to long-term change in how the colleges — which receive less state support than nearly every other public higher education system in the country — are funded. The colleges’ annual appropriation from the state has climbed to $35 million a year, up just $5 million from the prior year’s budget. The rest of the $89 million package is mostly one-time help.
Katherine Levasseur, the system’s Director of External and Governmental Affairs, called the state budget a “historic investment” that would make “an enormous difference for our students enrolled in these critical occupations programs.”
“We will be reporting back on the Critical Occupations programs to the legislature next year and we believe these initiatives are a strong opening in the larger, longer conversation about the affordability of public higher education for Vermonters,” she wrote in an email.
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