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Jim Kenyon: Vermont Tech isn’t worth saving

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Glenda Mitroff takes a daily walk with her dog Roxie through the campus of Vermont Technical College near her home in Randolph Center, Vt., Saturday, April 18, 2020. Mitroff said she graduated with the first class in the Licensed Practical Nurse program at the college in 1997. “Frequently students would ask if they could pet my dog, and say they missed their dogs,” she said of those she would meet while walking at the school before the pandemic. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/25/2020 10:06:29 PM
Modified: 4/25/2020 10:07:28 PM

Closing Vermont Technical College’s main campus in Randolph Center would have undoubtedly damaged the local economy and created hardships for the school’s students, employees and their families.

Still, for Vermont as a whole, it would have been the right move. For the direction higher education is headed, the Randolph Center campus is too large, too costly — and let’s face it, too remote.

For the time being at least, it’s a moot point.

On Wednesday, in response to public backlash, Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding backed off his proposal to consolidate Vermont Tech’s operations onto its smaller campus 60 miles north in Williston. The other part of Spaulding’s plan — shuttering Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Lyndon and Johnson — was shelved as well.

As painful and unpopular as it was, Spaulding’s recommendation, which needed the Board of Trustees’ approval to be implemented, was on the money.

The state’s public college system is projecting a deficit of between $7 million and $10 million this fiscal year. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the system is also staring at a drop of 15% or more in enrollment at its residential campuses for the fall.

In his initial announcement on April 17, Spaulding said downsizing was “critical to a sustainable future for public higher education in Vermont.”

Although he reversed course last week, he still warned the current configuration of the state system, which consists of Castleton University, Northern Vermont, Vermont Tech and Community College of Vermont, “cannot continue for long.”

Why’s that? For starters, demographics.

Over the last decade, Vermont has seen a 25% decrease in the number of high school graduates — a trend that isn’t expected to end anytime soon.

Since it became Vermont Tech in the early 1960s, the school has relied on attracting traditional students. After graduating from high school, Vermonters (85% of students are state residents) moved onto the sprawling hilltop campus in Randolph Center to earn a career-focused technical education.

But the model doesn’t work like it once did for Vermont Tech and many other schools across the country. For convenience and affordability, more students are turning to online learning.

In August, Spaulding’s office issued a 26-page “white paper” that painted a sobering picture. “The days when our colleges could rely on increasing enrollment, tuition, and fees are over,” the report said. Colleges of tomorrow will “involve bringing education to the people, not bringing people to the institution.”

This spring, Vermont Tech’s total enrollment was nearly 1,700. But 500 of those students, many of them studying to be nurses, were taking classes at Vermont Tech’s 11 satellite classrooms around the state.

The Randolph Center campus, where almost 750 students were enrolled this spring, features four dormitories that can accommodate 620 students. Before the coronavirus outbreak sent everyone home, 435 students were living on campus, which marked a five-year high, but still left the school with plenty of empty beds.

It seems more students — unwilling or unable to pay Vermont Tech’s $11,000 annual room-and-board fees — are opting for commuter schools. And the Williston campus, 7 miles from Burlington, is situated to draw commuters from Chittenden County, home to 1 in 4 Vermonters.

Since Spaulding’s now-scrapped recommendation became public, much has been made of the state underfunding its colleges. Vermont ranks 49th in state funding per student.

But lawmakers aren’t as stingy as they appear. Every year, the Legislature sends the nonprofit Vermont Student Assistance Corp., better known as VSAC, a sizable chunk ($20.1 million in 2019) of taxpayers’ money. (Last year, the state colleges received $30 million and the University of Vermont got $42.5 million.)

With its state allotment, VSAC, which the Legislature created in 1965, provides need-based grants — money that doesn’t have to be paid back — to help Vermonters with college expenses.

Vermont is one of the few states that allows students to spend taxpayer-funded grants wherever they please. Last year, about $5 million went to students attending out-of-state colleges.

Many states wouldn’t dream of putting tax dollars in the pockets of schools beyond its borders. It’s partly out of fear that students who leave won’t come back after they graduate, exacerbating so-called brain drain.

Every so often, a bill to limit portability, as it’s called, surfaces in Montpelier, only to be quashed.

After a 2018 proposal was introduced, former Gov. Jim Douglas was among state leaders who argued to keep things the way they are. “Ending portability would mean an end to giving Vermonters, regardless of where they live or what their families earn, equal opportunities,” Douglas wrote in VtDigger.

Portability, and sending millions to VSAC, in general, is arguably good public policy. It puts money directly in students’ hands. But it comes at the expense of UVM and the state’s colleges, which contributes to Vermont having among the country’s highest tuition prices for public institutions.

The public outcry that followed Spaulding’s recommendation will likely lead the Legislature to throw a few more bucks the colleges’ way this year. There’s also talk of Vermont using some of its federal COVID-19 stimulus money to help get colleges out of the red.

But that’s not a long-term solution. To avoid shuttering campuses, funding for higher education must move up on the state’s priority list.

It then becomes a matter of what Vermonters are willing to give up. Will they settle for fewer state troopers and prison guards? Will they go along with cutting back on the paving and plowing of state highways? Will they support spending less on protecting the environment?

Tough choices. But without making them, the state could be left with no choice at all when it comes to the future of Vermont Tech in Randolph Center.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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