Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College should all become one school, and the state should more than double its investment in the state college system, at least in the short term. 

Those are the key items in a long-awaited package of preliminary recommendations by a special legislative panel. 

Meanwhile, trustees of the Vermont State College System voted this week to freeze tuition next academic year, although room and board fees could still increase as much as 3 percent.

Financial problems at the long-ailing Vermont State Colleges came to a head this spring, when then-Chancellor Jeb Spaulding recommended three campuses be closed to balance the books in the wake of the pandemic. The idea led to swift and fierce public backlash, Spaulding resigned, and lawmakers pledged to do what it took to get the system through the year.

But state officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, also made clear they expected the system to undergo a major overhaul to get back on to a more sustainable path, and lawmakers assigned a committee to recommend a way forward.

The committee’s members include lawmakers, college presidents, faculty and student representatives, among others. But the nearly 80-page report adopted by the panel Friday was mostly written by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Colorado. The panel is expected to issue two additional reports in the coming months.

State colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said she will take her cues from the system’s board of trustees and legislators about which direction they want to go in, given the report’s contents. But she said she is grateful to have such a detailed blueprint for reform — and another voice stating in no uncertain terms that the colleges do indeed need more financial help from the state.

“One of the key pieces, I think, coming out of this is it does explain that transformation will take time, and it will take money,” she said.

For decades, Vermont has ranked near — and sometimes at — the bottom nationally for how much it funds public higher education. Among the ramifications: Vermonters have consistently paid some of the highest tuition prices at public colleges in the country, and graduate with above-average debt.

The consultants recommended that the state government hike its regular contribution to the state colleges by more than 50 percent — from $30 million to $47.5 million a year.

And to help the colleges undergo a whole-system transformation, the state will also need to spend millions in one-time money, the report says. It recommends $25 million in the next fiscal year, $20 million the following, $17 million the next, $10 million in 2025 and a final $5 million in 2026.

“It is no longer possible for this can to be kicked further down the road, with hopes that the individual institutions and the chancellor’s office will come up with cost reductions substantial enough to achieve long-term financial sustainability, without help from the Legislature working in partnership with the governor’s office,” the consultants write.

The report recommends that Community College of Vermont remain a stand-alone institute and does not contemplate closing any campuses, but it does emphasize that the system should reduce its physical footprint, and likely will need to demolish underused structures that cannot be safely refurbished. 

The legislative panel is not the only entity pitching a proposal for reform. Independently, the faculty and staff unions at the Vermont State Colleges System set up their own task force, which this week released its own proposal.

On the subject of unification, the labor task force recommendations are actually in substantial agreement with the consultants’ report. Faculty and staff also propose that institutions should be unified under a single accreditation, although they go one step further and argue Community College of Vermont should be included as well. And, in contrast to the consultants’ report, the unions also recommend getting rid of the chancellor’s office outright. 

‘We’re way too expensive’

Castleton University professor Linda Olson, a member of the labor task force, said the group believes a single entity would be better able to cut down on what they perceive as administrative bloat.

“We actually can consolidate the positions that are most expensive in our system and save money that way, rather than constantly cutting faculty and staff,” she said.

The labor report also argues forcefully for more investments directed specifically at affordability, and argues that the high cost of attendance contributes more to the system’s dwindling enrollment figures than the state and region’s shrinking college-age population.

“One of the reasons why our enrollment has gone down is not because of changing demographics, but because we cost too damn much. We’re way too expensive,” Olson said.

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