Editorial: No Way to Slice It: Vt. State Colleges Deserve Fair Share

Sunday, March 02, 2014
State funding for Vermont’s public colleges and its flagship university doesn’t add up to much. The state currently appropriates just $2,500 per full-time student, an amount that’s remained steady for the past 20 years and is now the second lowest state contribution to higher education in the country. In the past, the institutions forced to divide this measly pie have done so without much competition or complaint, taking what little they could get. This year, though, the Vermont State Colleges are appealing for a larger slice, arguing that they aren’t getting their fair share. They make a good point.

The Vermont State Colleges enroll more than 12,000 students at five institutions — Castleton State; Community College of Vermont; Johnson State; Lyndon State; and Vermont Tech in Randolph. The chancellor and trustees are making the persuasive case that state funding is not only inadequate but disproportionate compared with the state allocation for the University of Vermont, which receives almost twice the amount while enrolling half as many students. This year, UVM received about $43 million, while the five state colleges divided $24 million. Gov. Shumlin has proposed what is, in effect, a 1 percent increase for both UVM and the Vermont State Colleges next year. That translates into $430,000 more for UVM but only half as much for the state colleges.

The gap between UVM’s budget and the budget for the Vermont State Colleges just gets bigger and bigger as time goes on, a point made by VSC Board Chairman Gary Moore. “For at least 15 years that I can remember, maybe more, but at least 15 years, the Legislature has chosen to give us all the same percentage (increase). So therefore every year the gap between UVM and the VSC gets larger. It’s just like giving every one of your employees the same percentage raise. The CEO is going to get a heck of a lot more money than the entry-level person, and each year that gap gets wider.” Moore says last year’s 3 percent increase amounted to $345 per student at UVM and $95 per student at the state colleges. That discrepancy doesn’t seem right, especially since most state college students are Vermont residents and 84 percent remain in the state after graduation, working and contributing to the state economy.

The inadequacy of state funding means that Vermont state colleges are far more dependent on tuition for revenue than they used to be and more dependent than comparable institutions in other states. In 1980, 49 percent of their revenue came from tuition, and 51 percent came from state appropriations. Today, tuition represents 82 percent of revenue, compared with a national average of 47 percent. Some legislators are looking to restore the 1980 ratio of state funding to overall revenue. But in the meantime, the state colleges, facing a $6 million deficit, are having to rely more and more on other revenue sources. Last week, trustees announced a 3 percent tuition increase, which will bring the cost of attendance, with room and board, to $19,524, on average. That’s a stretch for most students, even for those with Pell grants and federal loans, and it will almost certainly deter some prospective students from applying, while increasing the student debt for those who do attend. Vermont doesn’t need deterrents: Compared with other states, proportionally few high school graduates seek post-secondary education as it is.

So while the state colleges are focusing public attention on the inequitable distribution of state funds, the issue ultimately is how state funding policies affect student access. State and community colleges represent higher education’s backbone, providing educational opportunities and training for large numbers of students. In short, Vermont cannot afford to let these institutions become unaffordable, especially at a time when post-secondary education is considered a prerequisite for a good job.

Given fiscal realities, the Legislature isn’t likely to serve up a substantially larger pie for higher education. But it should adjust allocations to the institutions that compete for state funds. The University of Vermont, where 65 percent of students come from out of state, has more flexibility than the smaller and leaner state colleges to raise tuition and cut administrative expenses, and can probably make do with a little less.