What will become of Vermont’s cash-strapped college system?

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 7:08 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 30, 2020 at 10:53 AM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A month before the start of the new school year and still no resolution to a funding gap for the Vermont State Colleges System. State leaders are searching for a way to keep the system afloat as it faces a $30 million deficit next year. Our Calvin Cutler shows you how lawmakers and education leaders are forging a path forward through the pandemic.

A college system faced with declining enrollment and some of the lowest state financial support confronted an added challenge last spring-- COVID-19.

“I think we all hoped that was it for COVID that we could move on, come back in the fall and everything would be back to normal but unfortunately that’s not the way that it’s turned out,” said Sophie Zdatny, the chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System.

Lawmakers say at the core of the state college system's financial woes is Vermont's aging demographics which has left an ever-shrinking pool of applicants.

“It’s probably going to be even worse in terms of high school and college-age students being available from Vermont to go to our higher learning institutions,” said Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland.

Back in the spring, former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding floated a plan to cut expenses by closing three campuses. His proposal was met with fierce opposition and protests saying Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College at Randolph are more than schools, they’re the heartbeat of their communities.

The Legislature then allocated $5 million in bridge funding and $7 million from the $1.25 billion CARES Act. But that still won't be enough.

"What we don't want to do is spend money improperly. We don't want to be in that situation but we do want to use it as effectively as we can," Zdatny said.

With the state budget already hundreds of millions of dollars in the red, lawmakers say we have to be careful of how we invest in higher ed.

To identify savings, the VSC system is rolling out a task force to find redundancies within the system, such as similar programs on different campuses, or ways to cut costs entirely like scaling back the chancellor’s office in Montpelier.

But leaders stress a financial path forward starts with increased financial support from the state to lower the cost of attendance.

"That will help with enrollment and enrollment will then help with our financial situation because these things are all interconnected," Zdatny said.

Lawmakers are set to take up the state colleges’ funding issue when they return in August. By then they may have updated fall enrollment figures and a better scope of the system’s financial woes.

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