Vermont’s state colleges poised to adopt unification plan for survival’s sake

Published: 2/21/2021 9:15:04 PM
Modified: 2/21/2021 9:15:01 PM

Trustees of the Vermont State Colleges are poised to endorse a plan Monday in which all three of the system’s four-year schools would eventually merge into one “Vermont State University.”

The consolidation of Northern Vermont University, Castleton University, and Vermont Technical College under one common accreditation is part of a sweeping plan to make good on the system’s promise to transform itself in exchange for extra help from the state.

“It will be more student-focused, it will serve the state better, and it will get us to a place where we’re on a sounder financial footing,” state colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said Friday.

The plan will ultimately have to be approved by the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accreditor. That will be a lengthy process, and could take upward of two years, Zdatny said. The proposal would not close any campuses, although it could close certain academic programs and the system’s use of online courses could expand dramatically.

The system was brought to its knees financially last spring, when the pandemic first came to Vermont and sent college students packing — and demanding refunds. But the state colleges had been teetering on the brink for years, plagued by steadily declining enrollment and decades of chronic underfunding by the state.

To save the larger system from insolvency, then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding in April proposed an amputation. Three campuses — in Randolph, Lyndon and Johnson — would close for good. The blowback was fierce and immediate, the plan was shelved, Spaulding resigned, and state leaders pledged to find the money to get the system through the year in one piece.

But Vermont’s top politicians also made clear they expected the state colleges to make big changes. This is the system’s attempt to do so.

For decades, Vermont has ranked near — and sometimes at — the bottom nationally for how much it funds public higher education. Among the ramifications: Public tuition prices are some of the highest in the country, and, despite stellar high school graduation rates, the state lags both regionally and nationally in the percentage of students who go on to college.

Everyone — including state leaders — appear now to agree that the colleges need more money than the state has historically been willing to give. But what’s unknown at this point is exactly how much that will amount to.

In his budget address, Gov. Phil Scott proposed sending the colleges their regular $30 million annual appropriation in the next fiscal year, plus $20 million in one-time funding. Outside consultants hired by a special legislative panel tasked with re-imagining the system has estimated the system should get $72.5 million next year (part of this figure is a one-time request). The chancellor’s office has asked for $67.4 million (some of this is also one-time funding). It is still early in the legislative session, and lawmakers have yet to coalesce behind a particular funding proposal.

“Everything really is contingent on whether we have that financial support moving forward. (Consolidation) isn’t a magic bullet that’s going to somehow, you know, miraculously turn things around in a year. This is going to take time and money,” Zdatny said.

The state colleges have tried administrative consolidation — on a smaller scale — as recently as 2016, when trustees voted to merge Johnson State College and Lyndon State College and re-brand as Northern Vermont University. (The move kept both campuses.) And such mergers are being explored elsewhere in the country, including in nearby Maine and Connecticut.

But the plan does have its critics.

Castleton has invested heavily in both its campus and a rebranding initiative in recent years, and the Rutland region’s business community has expressed concern this proposal will undo that work.

“You want to maintain the brand that will attract business. And right now, we believe Castleton has a brand, all the way from its colors to its signage, to the quality of education,” said Lyle Jepson, executive director for the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region.

Staff and faculty union, too, have criticized the plan, although for very different reasons. They endorse consolidation, but would like it to go further, and think that the Community College of Vermont should be included in the merger. That will allow the system to fully eliminate the chancellor’s office, they say, and reap additional administrative savings.

But their central critique is that the plan does not do enough to tackle the cost of attendance head on. A labor task force has countered that, in addition to consolidation, the state should invest directly in a last-dollar tuition program.

“We do strongly believe that if we don’t also tackle the affordability issue, it’s not going to matter. Because our students need to be able to afford to go to college,” said Linda Olson, a professor at Castleton University who sat on the labor task force. “When 40% of our students right out of high school are not going on to college, that’s because there’s no affordable option left in Vermont.”

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