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Schubart: Castleton University

I’m not one to spoil a party but I remain puzzled by Castleton’s decision to become a university. It’s a fine school and President Wolk deserves kudos for making it so, but times are changing and so must higher ed. Aspirational renaming won’t make this happen.

If the goal is to attract full-tuition payers from the Mid- and Far-East, that ship has sailed. Yes, foreign elites still clamor to get into our best colleges and do, but China is now building more than a hundred colleges on the Stanford and MIT model and if we don’t address our own high ed issues, our grandchildren may be going to college over there. In Vermont, we spend $130 million dollars on corrections and $80+million on higher ed, so first, we need to revisit our priorities. Of the $80M, a little over half goes to UVM, $19M to VSAC and the remaining $20M is shared among our five state colleges. Among those arguably, CCV is most closely attuned to the educational needs of the average Vermonter. It’s curricular agility, local presence, and mix of low-residency and personalized online pedagogy allows working Vermonters to continue their education, broaden their career choices, and enhance compensation.

VT Tech is doing remarkable things as well. Their superb agricultural practicum begs the question of why UVM, just 90 minutes away, has spent $10M refurbishing a barn in the middle of Burlington’s most expensive urban enclave.

Vermonters can’t adequately fund six colleges in a time of declining enrollments. I understand that four of them are primary economic engines in their communities and there are solutions that needn’t mandate closures and lay-offs, but we’re not talking about them. We’re nibbling around the edges of a larger problem. We must reassess what higher ed means today in terms of cost, infrastructure, pedagogy, commerce, and economic stability. But so far, we’re not asking the strategic questions.

I don’t believe the sole mission of education is to train workers but we must look at public higher ed more comprehensively and engage business in the discussion. Education is an end unto itself whereas higher ed clearly supports career choice, employment, and financial security. I wouldn’t employ an engineer who couldn’t explain a concept in writing.

I wish Castleton University well. But I really doubt that their new name will do much to solve the enrollment and cost challenges facing all our small state colleges, to say nothing of our students.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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