Vermont State College System and the Headwinds of Privilege

Change is relentless. Humanity’s efforts to understand, accommodate, and survive it are invariably buffeted by the headwinds stirred up by those whose privilege may be curtailed by that change.

Reversing environmental degradation caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is, understandably, opposed by those who may, in time, lose their jobs or the profits they earn from it. Efforts to reduce the extremes of poverty and wealth through taxation are opposed by those whose wealth will be taxed. And efforts to reinvent the post-secondary educational system to ensure its survival are questioned by those whose jobs may be at risk (or ensured) by that reinvention.

We know:

  • We must act sooner rather than later, as Vermont’s colleges are at risk – both public and private.
  • Our eligible population has declined nationally and in-state (VT. El-Hi population declined from 120-88,000 in the last three decades.) Expanding college to more flexible life-long learning may help offset the demographic decline in traditional 4-year students.
  • The post-secondary education market is changing. The educational goals of students have been in transition from traditional STEM and liberal arts pedagogy towards more dynamic and segmented learning related to current or future employment goals, personal interests, and the certainty of more frequent career changes. Lectures, note-taking, labs, and exams are under challenge from a new generation of students who want engagement, experience, and internships as they learn.
  • Low-residency and online learning are creating newer, less expensive educational delivery systems.
  • College cost has maxed out (in the last 20 years, average private colleges tuition and fees are up 144%, out-of-state tuition and fees at public colleges have risen 165%) and U.S. college student debt is now $1.5T.)
  • Business is increasingly by-passing college degree requirements in its recruitment.

Although these trends have been a long-time coming, Vermont’s colleges are now in crisis. UVM is getting intense pushback from its faculty and, most specifically, its humanities professors, as that’s the collegiate market hardest hit by demographic and market change. UVM’s response appears in a recent fact-based commentary in VTDigger.

As one whose education was steeped in the humanities, I believe strongly in a humanities core as an integral part of the educational curriculum. Understanding the historical continuum of humankind’s progress through the millennia is vital to an informed and engaged citizenry. But that doesn’t mean money is no object, and a course in Epicurean Philosophy or Romanian Language with three or four students is financially untenable and can’t justify retention.

The faculty rationale seems to be that the obligatory mission of public colleges and universities to educate all learners should come either at any public tax-cost or at any market-tuition cost. But the legislature can’t simply pony up whatever funds are necessary to sustain a foundering enterprise, nor can colleges further shrink their increasingly elite market by continuing to raise tuitions beyond the capacity of the average learner to fund operations. Either signals a death knell to public higher ed, as both public funds and tuition revenue are finite.

Faculty name-calling only feeds the chaos. Pitting faculty interests against those of their peers in administration is counter-productive. Institutional advancement, finance, technical services, admissions, marketing/communications, or grounds and maintenance staff, like faculty, are integral to sustaining a college.

Instead, solutions lie in transformative reinvention that acknowledges change and fiscal realities – and guarantees a quality, accessible education for learners of any financial ability.

Any solution will need gubernatorial leadership and a unified legislative vision along with some transitional legislative funding, lower tuitions and fees and flexible tuitioning capacity (discounting and scholarships), and, finally, non-adversarial stakeholder commitment to work towards sustainable institutional reinvention, leaving current privilege at the door.

A consultancy, The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), was hired to work with the legislative commission charged with developing a sustainable path forward for the Vermont State College (VSC) System and has just issued its interim report, The Initial Report of the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont.

The Report starts by defining “Learner’s Needs” as access to affordable academic programs in all state regions that prepare students – regardless of income, race/ethnicity, national origin, parents’ education, age, sex, gender identity, disability, prior academic experience, or place of residence – for the world of work and for participating in a democratic society. It also mandates learner support systems, including access to broadband and the technology necessary for on-line learning, that ensure success in their academic endeavors and enable them to complete their chosen course of study.

The Report goes on to delineate “State’s Needs” as fulfilling the state’s workforce development needs in all sectors of the state’s economy (including the creative economy), preparing students for participation in the world of work and in a democratic society, reducing gaps in educational opportunities available to students of all types and from all communities throughout the state, stimulating and supporting the economic and cultural vitality of the state and its communities, attracting and retaining talent to a vibrant and growing Vermont economy fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, skilled labor, and relevant basic and applied research supplied by thriving VSC institutions, and finally, being a good steward of public funds and of funds received from tuition payments through efficient academic and administrative operations/functions.

It also recommends that these goals be embedded legislatively in the VSC charter for clarity, accountability, and consistency.

Fundamentally, it recommends consolidating the leadership and administrative core of NVU, Castleton, and VT Tech to reduce curriculum redundancy and cost, but recommends leaving the Community College of Vermont (CCV) intact to preserve its learner-responsive curriculum and pedagogy, broad accessibility, low cost, and its own financial security. And finally, it calls on the State to reimagine and commit to how it plans to annually fund the mission of a reinvented VCS System.

The collapse of the current system has been a long time coming. The inclination in Vermont to patch and repair rather than redesign for current and future needs and sustainability has led us to this brink. Meanwhile, the Governor’s budget allocates $20M to the system to fund its survival. Imagine if it were $10M, keeping pressure on the process, and the remaining $10M were allocated to immediately lowering tuition across the system. How many new learners could then afford the education they want, and how would their entrance into the system diminish the financial problem?

With a sincere and collegial commitment to reimaging the VSC System based on current realities and future trends, the Select Commission, Governor Scott, and legislature leadership can ensure a vital future for Vermont State Colleges and a pathway to success for Vermonters of all ages and incomes.