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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Despite Increased Funding, Vermont State Colleges Are Still Struggling

Angela Evancie
Vermont now has the lowest rate of college enrollment in New England, and in-state tuition at public colleges here, such as Lyndon State College, is second-highest in the nation.

Vermont’s state college system got its first funding increase in nearly a decade this past legislative session. But the one-time appropriation won’t solve the institutions’ long-term money problems, and the colleges are running out of places to cut costs.

Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of Vermont State Colleges, went into the 2016 legislative session looking for automatic annual funding increases, to keep the school’s budget on pace with rising costs.

He didn’t get them.

Spaulding says he appreciates the one-time, $700,000 increase that lawmakers did approve. But he says “it doesn’t change the fact that Vermont has very low overall state support for higher education."

“And that low state support translates into high tuition,” Spaulding says.

It also translates into a serious money crunch at five schools struggling to stay vibrant despite stagnant public funding.

Sandy Noyes is a staff assistant for the Humanities and Writing and Literature Departments at Johnson State College, where her duties include monitoring the budget.

That budget, she says, “is a very sad, sad thing to be watching right now.”

"Vermont has very low overall state support for higher education. And that low state support translates into high tuition." - Jeb Spaulding, Vermont State Colleges chancellor

Noyes has been at Johnson for 23 years, and now serves as vice-chair of the staff union's bargaining unit.  Things have never been opulent at the college, Noyes says. But she says the money situation is tighter now than at any time in the past.

“And now we’ve been cut down to even trying to make sure we don’t buy too many pens or pencils, or too much paper,” Noyes says.

Noyes says course offerings have also diminished as a result of the revenue struggles.

“So we’ve had to cut a lot of classes, so students get really frustrated with us – some of them are calling it a bait and switch,” Noyes says.

Spaulding says the system has cut more than $2.1 million in payroll costs over the past two years, largely by not filling vacant positions. He says the search for additional savings continues.

“We are looking for ways where we can centralize or consolidate administrative functions that are currently duplicated five times around the state of Vermont with a relatively low state population,” Spaulding says.

"We've had to cut a lot of classes, so students get really frustrated with us. Some of them are calling it a bait and switch." - Sandy Noyes, Johnson State College staff assistant

Spaulding says focusing cost containment on administrative areas will leave the student experience largely unharmed. But Noyes says some administrative staff members are already feeling overburdened.

“And we’re just tired. We can only do what we can do, and that’s what we tell the administration: ‘That’s all we can do,’” Noyes says.

Spaulding says the push to reduce operational costs, and increase public funding, is about getting tuition to a price point that Vermont students can afford.

Spaulding points to two statistics he says are closely related: Vermont now has the lowest rate of college enrollment in New England; and in-state tuition at public colleges here is second-highest in the nation.

Of the 6,000 Vermonters graduating from high school this spring, Spaulding says 2,000 have no plans for post-secondary education. For many of those students, Spaulding says the high cost of tuition is what keeps them from enrolling.

“That’s a tragedy,” Spaulding says. “Their lifetime earnings are going to be a lot less. Their health outcomes are going to be worse. They’re much more likely to be on public assistance.”

Spaulding says he’s optimistic that the one-time appropriation this year signals new appreciation in Montpelier of the colleges’ revenue issues, and he says he’s hopeful lawmakers will follow up in 2017 with another increase in state support. Spaulding says other efforts underway internally will improve student recruitment and retention. 

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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