In an Ernest Hemingway novel, a character is asked how he went bankrupt. The answer, “Gradually, then suddenly,” could very well apply to our Vermont State College System.
The recent proposed closure of Northern Vermont University, though long in the making, has blindsided many and created an existential threat to rural Vermont. Students who have paid their bills and put their lives into their education are now left to wonder whether their school will exist for them to complete their degrees. Faculty and staff, who have given so much to their students and the communities around them, learned along with the rest of us that their employer was set to be suddenly eliminated.
The proposal has since been withdrawn, and the Vermont State Colleges chancellor who proposed it replaced, but many challenges still face the Vermont State College System. And so far, we have seen little progress from our Legislature in addressing this threat.
While much of what we are struggling through now is a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and somewhat unavoidable, there is still much that could have been done to prevent this exercise in brinkmanship. Former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s proposal was dangerous — it signaled weakness in the Vermont State Colleges System to prospective students and potential faculty hires, and further imperiled the system — but it was not a surprise to those who have followed the fortunes of the state colleges over the years.
When I was a political science student at what was then Johnson State College, now NVU, I remember attending annual rallies at the Statehouse organized around the demand for increased funding for the state colleges. Back then, we were the state with the second-lowest level of state funding for their public higher education institutions. Now, we have the very undignified position of last place.
I know for many Vermonters, who perceive Vermont as a progressive state, hearing that simple fact is shocking, but it is true.
We have to reverse this trend and make supporting a vibrant, accessible and high-quality higher education system a priority for state government. The Vermont State Colleges System chronic underfunding has downstream impacts that are becoming difficult for us to ignore.
Much attention is paid these days to Vermont’s disturbing demographic trends, telling us that for decades, our working-age populations have been shrinking, while our older population continues to rise. We are rapidly approaching the day when the cost of services we must provide to those in retirement will overtake the amount our state’s economy is capable of generating.
It is in the midst of this reality that we see this counterintuitive proposal to gut our state college system, one of our most effective tools to attract and retain young people in Vermont. If young adults spend their college years in rural Vermont, making personal and professional connections along the way, it is much more likely they will stay after college is done. This helps to grow our rural communities and pay for our services for the most vulnerable.
We need to be finding ways to empower our state colleges to accomplish this goal more effectively, not tearing them down.
It is because of this burning need that I was the first person to sign on to the VSCS Thrive! Legislative Pledge of Support. This pledge, to fight for a doubling of state funding for the state college system, was a no-brainer for me to sign.
As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops in recent days, Vermont’s statute creating the state colleges specifically requires those colleges be funded “in whole or in substantial part” with state appropriations. At our current pitiful state funding level of 17 percent, we are coming nowhere near this statutory obligation.
Beyond that, for the reasons mentioned above, I believe this is an investment in our future that is worth making. We all know that we’ve had real issues keeping young people in Vermont over the last couple of decades — does anybody else think it’s not a coincidence that we’ve also been severely underfunding our state colleges that entire time? This is unacceptable, and we must use our current budgetary chaos as an opportunity to vocally express that we believe the Vermont State Colleges are worthy of being a priority going forward.
It is exciting to see that a Facebook Group (VSCS Thrive!) of over 10,000 people, including students, faculty, alumni and community members of the colleges, has come together around this issue and loudly shown its support for these rural campuses and the immense value they provide to Vermonters.
I expect that this group will find continued avenues to amplify this very important message. And I can only hope that our legislators and their leadership will hear them.
Shayne Spence of Johnson is a Republican candidate for a Vermont House seat representing Belvidere, Hyde Park, Johnson and Wolcott.