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VTC's Budget Shortfall Continues, But College Says It's Much Smaller

Steve Zind
VTC President Dan Smith says the college is erasing its deficit, but long-term challenges remain.

After borrowing millions of dollars from the state college system to meet budget shortfalls, Vermont Technical College is slowly climbing out of the red.

While some of the college’s challenges are unique to VTC, others are more universal.

By the close of the fiscal year in July, VTC will have borrowed $4.5 million from the Vermont State College system. 

VTC President Dan Smith says the college will have to borrow more money before the budget comes into balance, which he expects in fiscal year 2018.

But Smith says the money needed will be “in the six-figure range” and less than in the past as the budget gap continues to narrow. The progress, Smith says, is due to several factors.

“There’s been a tuition increase and also we’re about 5 percent up in enrollment this year. There have been operating reductions in terms of expenses, some personnel action and a lot of reorganization,” he says.

In the past 18 months, the college has cut three full-time faculty positions and left others unfilled. Meanwhile, there were over 80 new incoming students and transfers this semester.

Smith ticks off a list of new programs he says promise to help boost enrollment at the college’s campuses in Randolph Center and Williston.

They include degrees in renewable energy and manufacturing engineering. The college is also offering its first master’s degree program – in software engineering, its fastest growing major.

Smith says the new programs are fashioned out of existing ones, largely using current faculty.

He says partnerships with manufacturers, particularly a scholarship program sponsored by GW Plastics, promise to increase enrollment as well.

“They help us get students in the front door because they say, ‘We’ll give you an internship, a scholarship and a job, and that’s a pretty exciting pathway,'” he says.   

The most challenging program for the college to run is its dairy farm in Randolph Center, which represents a six-figure loss on an annual basis.

Smith says the future of the farm is being discussed in light of the donation to the college of a dairy farm in Norwich. The Norwich farm will not be operated by the college but will serve as a residency setting for the dairy program. He says the arrangement will help the college avoid the “volatility” of running a dairy farm.

Regardless of the losses, he says the college is committed to dairy and agricultural programs.

“I think we’re mission-committed to serving for the benefit of the state and the working landscape is still a vital part of the state," he says. "There’s about to be a generational shift in the number of farmers and who’s farming and the state needs Vermont Technical College to play a role."

Smith has long argued that the real answer to the challenges facing VTC and the other colleges in the system is more money from the state. Vermont has level-funded the system in recent years.

Smith says increased financial support is one way to keep a declining number of Vermont high school graduates in the state to join the labor force and meet employers' demands for trained workers.

He says in-state tuition for Vermont residents is less than the cost of attending college out of state, but the differential isn’t great enough.

As a result, he says, only 49 percent of the state’s high school graduates who attend college choose to do so in state – the rest leave. That’s 31 percent below the national average.

“We lose 31 percentage points of our young people out of the state on an annual basis. I’ll know we’re taking our demographic challenge seriously when we’re actually funding the institutions that are actually positioned to help address it,” he says.

Smith says he doesn’t accept the argument that the state is too small or too financially strapped to increase its support for its colleges and university.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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