Report on saving VSCS calls for major consolidations, state funding

Published: Dec. 9, 2020 at 5:49 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The first of three reports aimed at saving the Vermont State College System from insolvency calls for merging all course offerings and increasing state financial support. But as Calvin Cutler reports, it comes at a time when the state already faces an array of competing pandemic budget demands.

In any normal year, thousands of state college students would be bustling on campuses across the state and preparing for final exams and the holiday break. Instead, campuses are empty as students finishing the semester remotely.

“I’m excited to see what it’s like when it gets back to normal. I’m sure it’ll be better,” said Ethan Creller, a first-year student at Vermont Technical College.

Declining enrollment caused by shifting demographics and out of state competition, combined with one of the lowest levels of state support in the nation, has the state colleges on the brink of financial collapse. More student declines and increased expenses due to the pandemic have only made it worse.

“COVID-19 just precipitated a lot of the changes in higher ed. Not just in Vermont, but countrywide and worldwide,” said CG Ryan Cooney, a Vermont Tech junior.

Last spring, in an effort to right the financially unstable ship, a plan to close three campuses met with a visceral response from students, staff, and local communities. That plan was scrapped and lawmakers provided a $56 million lifeline on the condition the colleges find a way to grow enrollment, lower student costs, and keep campuses open.

The new report from a special legislative panel recommends a slate of options to make the system sustainable by combining Castleton, NVU, and Vermont Tech under one banner and deliver their majors remotely anywhere in the state. “They’re going to have a better educational experience, a better quality program if they have the ability to access faculty across the state,” said VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny. It also calls for more state support by adding some $70 million over the next five years.

But more cash for the colleges means a bigger strain on other areas of state spending. “If we invest in one area it has to come out of another area. There isn’t just this magical stockpile of money we have available,” Gov. Phl Scott said Tuesday. He says a new stimulus package from Washington could soften the blow.

Armed with that knowledge, state lawmakers will return to work in a few weeks to come up with a plan. But they admit that there are hard discussions ahead. “We’re still going to have to trim severely -- underattended offerings, courses majors, minors, etc.,” said Sen. Phillip Baruth, D-Chittenden County.

And anticipating a strain on families next year, the VSCS Board of Trustees is freezing tuition next year. But as state and school leaders forge a path forward, students like Nathan Rubin, an NVU senior, just say they want a clear plan from the colleges. “The community is very invested in these schools and we deserve the transparency of what they’re doing,” he said.

The conclusions from the report aren’t set in stone. The Legislature, Governor Scott, and the board of trustees still have to give it their seal of approval. The chancellor will present the board with a single unification plan next week.

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