I think Benjamin Franklin was right when he said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Education can be a great pathway out of poverty for many. We should do what we can to help Vermonters who want a higher education.

Today, Vermont ranks third-worst in the nation in the level of support it provides for higher education. The vast majority of all Vermont students choose to go to one of our Vermont State Colleges. The percent of college cost parents in Vermont pay to help their children go to college is the highest in the country. A student graduating from our state colleges faces a debt of around $28,000.

Unless something is done to help the state colleges, they are looking at ending the year with a $4 million deficit. The more the state colleges increase tuition, the less competitive they are in attracting students from out of state. Fewer Vermont students will make college a choice in the face of more staggering debt.

So, what then do we do? Anyone want to pay more taxes to help? To the governor’s credit, he recommends providing $4 million to the Vermont State Colleges next year. He proposes to fund it, however, by shifting the cost to the Education Fund, which can mean higher property taxes. There does not appear to be much of an appetite for that.

The state colleges deserve much credit for trying to fix the financial situation on their own. They have laid off over 200 staff in the last three years, cutting their expenses by $3.6 million. They have consolidated business office functions across our five-college system, saving another $1 million.

The unification of Johnson State and Lyndon State colleges into Northern Vermont University will save $2 million. The colleges have worked hard to change their retirement and health insurance plans, to save another $2 million.

None of these cost-saving efforts have been easy, and college administrations, faculty and staff deserve much credit for trying to fix their problems. Yet, despite these efforts, they still face a $4 million shortfall.

All possible solutions need to be explored to do more for Vermont families who want to better themselves through higher education. Vermont will spend $4.9 million in taxpayer dollars this year to send students to out-of-state colleges. The question of curtailing that policy has come up for consideration.

In Lamoille County, 126 students out of 514 used their Vermont financial assistance to go to an out-of-state college. In Washington County, that statistic was 347 out of 1,231 students.

No one would suggest pulling the rug out from under these students in the middle of their college years. All who want to finish their education out of state should be supported.

However, after they have completed their education, a line could be drawn, and no additional out-of-state assistance would be granted, allowing the dollars to stay in Vermont, where many would choose the Vermont State Colleges.

If a student wanted to pursue a course of study out of state that was not offered in Vermont, he or she could be allowed to do so with state help. Those who might attend a border college like Keene State could be allowed if they were a day student, but those who lived on campus might have to attend a Vermont college instead.

None of this is easy. There are no ways to magically print more money to solve the Vermont State Colleges challenges. There are not many other options. I will be exploring the possibility of limiting tax dollars to in-state colleges as a way to help the system.

I do not take such a decision lightly. There will be those who argue students from modest-income families should also have opportunities to explore learning in different areas of our county, not just those from families who can afford it. The sad story is we may not be able to afford to do that.

David Yacovone, a Democrat from Morrisville, also represents Elmore, Woodbury and Worcester in the Vermont House. Email letters to news@newsandcitizen.com.

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