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Legislators Struggle To Fund State Colleges As Annual In-State Tuition Continues To Climb

Angela Evancie
In recent years the state college system has struggled to provide affordable in state tuition. Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings, seen here in January, and the Senate Committee on Education are working to find funding to help the state college system.

It’s been nearly a decade since lawmakers increased base funding for the Vermont state college system, and critics say the resulting hikes in tuition are pricing many local kids out of higher education. New legislation would help solve the colleges’ revenue problem, but the proposal still has to win approval from key money committees.

By several key measures, Vermont spends less on higher education than all but a handful of other states, and base funding for the college system has been static since 2008.

“There’s a direct relationship between that and the fact that we have the second highest in-state tuition in the country,” says Jeb Spaulding, the chancellor of Vermont State Colleges.

The average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges in Vermont this year will hit nearly $15,000 for in-state students. It’s a figure that makes Vermont the second most expensive state in the nation to matriculate in when it comes to public four-year colleges.

As paltry state funding sends tuition up, Spaulding says the high cost of higher education is keeping many Vermont students from enrolling.

“Somehow, people think we can keep limping through. But my point is actually the people that suffer from the state’s continuing disinvestment in public higher education are Vermonters who are not getting the post-secondary education they need to improve their lives,” Spaulding says.

It’s not that elected officials aren’t aware of the problem. In 2013, lawmakers approved a one-time, $2.5 million appropriation to offset anticipated tuition increases. But it was a fleeting infusion into a state-college system where fiscal pressures resulted in the elimination of 170 full and part-time jobs over the past two years.  

This year, the average cost of tuition and fees at public colleges in Vermont will be nearly $15,000 for in-state students.

“We cannot afford not to make that continuing education affordable,” says Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education. “And as the costs go up, the schools have no choice but to switch those costs onto tuition.”

Cummings’ committee has approved legislation that would tie annual higher-education expenditures from the state to an inflationary index.

The Senate bill calls for increases for state colleges, the University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. It would tie that growth to the statutorily required annual increase of the general fund transfer to the Education Fund.

The House Committee on Education has approved similar legislation, though it would guarantee annual increases only for the five state colleges, not UVM or VSAC.

Cummings calls the appropriation a workforce development initiative that will provide businesses with the qualified employees they’ll need to thrive. She says it will also help reverse a trend that has seen Vermont become the second-worst state in New England when it comes to sending high school grads off to college.

“In order to be employable at anything above minimum wage, education beyond high school is necessary,” Cummings says.

In Montpelier however, the fiscal wish list is long. And while the increases called for in the Senate bills would add only about $700,000 to the budget next year, that amount would compound significantly over time, adding millions to the base budget in the out years.

"In order to be employable at anything above minimum wage, education beyond high school is necessary." — Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings, Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education

Cummings says it was tough enough to get the legislation through a policy committee. In a budget year, when revenues already aren’t keeping pace with anticipated expenditures, finding support in the House and Senate appropriations committees will be even tougher.

“We understand the difficulty of finding money,” Cummings says.

As former administration secretary for Gov. Peter Shumlin, Chancellor Spaulding understands well the difficulty of finding support for measures that create new and ongoing expenses in state government.

Spaulding says level funding over the past eight years has led to a gradual erosion at the state colleges. And he says it makes sense for the solution to use a gradual restoration.

“If we had had that in place for the last 10 years, we’d be in a completely different situation than we are,” Spaulding says.

The House Committee on Appropriations will decide this week whether to include the request.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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