Guest editorial: How Vermont’s state colleges are failing their students

This week’s writer is Allan Rodgers, MBA, MEd, a professor of business at, and former president of, Vermont Technical College.
Twenty years ago, the Vermont State Colleges hit the demographic iceberg of declining future high school graduates. The good ship VSC has been taking on water ever since and the slow sinking has finally become visible on the top deck. From recent articles in various publications, it would seem that the iceberg was only recently discovered, but the truth is that the lower birth rate curve was sighted and struck 20 years ago.
I saw it in 2000, when I first served as president as Vermont Technical College. The Vermont Legislature, Vermont’s governors (as ex-officio trustees of the VSC), VSC chancellors, presidents, senior leaders, and faculty saw it — or should have seen this collision and its consequences. We saw it but did nothing. Or, we did the wrong things (like adding extraordinary system debt), or acted without enough courage, hoping that the hole in the bow would heal itself. Or, we passed it along to the next generation of leaders.
After having spent nearly eight years as a faculty member in the VSC, teaching and getting to know hundreds of young Vermonters in their quest for a brighter future, I have one conclusion: we have done them wrong. 
We ask students to borrow a house-mortgage equivalent of debt with meager state support so that we can transfer that cash to current college overhead — in effect, we ask Vermont students to mortgage their future to support the salaries of local VSC employees. This is a simple transfer of wealth by deep borrowing of our children’s future for the benefit of local economies. Maybe we must do this, but let’s not fool ourselves that this is anything more sophisticated that using an overloaded credit card to pay for today’s groceries. Personally, this feels both unfair and unwise. Our students are under water, bailing out a sinking ship not of their making.
Small changes will result in small improvements, but the leaks are far larger than any bubble gum and duct tape can seal. I offer this modest proposal as steps to stop the leaking and get back on a course to a more prosperous Vermont State College system, and a fairer system for our Vermont youth.
Step One: Re-engineer the board. To paraphrase Einstein, the level of thinking that creates a problem cannot solve the problem. I do not mean to belittle the efforts of the many fine individuals who give tireless and freely of their time to the state colleges. What I criticize is a board structure that, over 20 years, has seemingly failed to recognize, failed to act, or failed to act appropriately to the clear system economic hole in the ship. Here is my bottom line: If the state only provides, say, 30 percent of the operating costs of the system, state appointments should only occupy 30 percent of the board seats. The balance of the board should be filled with industry leaders, educational experts, and alums as selected by the direct stakeholders — students, employees, citizens, and Vermont businesses. 
New thinking is required for new practices. Current board committees sustain failing practices as evidenced by the colleges on the brink of sinking. Instead, lets organize around real needs: How about a committee on “getting more state funding” or a committee on “getting graduates jobs,” or even a committee on “working with business and industry”?
Step Two: Abandon the “holding company” model. The current holding company model is based on an erroneous premise. True holding companies oversee entities that make their own economic decisions — and then face closure or sale if they don’t meet expectations. This is not the VSC practice. Colleges are not individually free to price, market, close, compete, re-invest, or express any of the other freedoms of a held company. 
Instead, the VSC should be consolidated into a single institution with multiple campuses. Each campus should have non-duplicative program specializations. Administration should be reduced to one system leader, a local campus “director,” and a consolidation of all other basic functions. There is no need to close any campus. There is an opportunity to bring significantly higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness to each campus through consolidation. Students should be able to seamlessly transfer among the state college campuses at one tuition rate. The benefits and costs of campuses should be structured so that there are economic dependencies among campuses. United we fail … or, survive.
Step Three: Set limits. Set minimum class sizes and maximum number of programs at each campus. Small classes, combined with too many programs cost too much as fixed instructional costs are spread thin over fewer and fewer students. We don’t need to reduce the total number of programs in the system, but why must a small college of 1,500 students offer 40 or more majors? I think that any VSC institution could and should offer 10 or so basic majors, a variety of concentrations and minors, without suffering. This requires more use of fewer courses serving broader, multi-purpose degrees.
Similarly, the colleges should not run classes with less than 15 students. Fifteen students, more or less, is a common breakeven number for costs and revenues. “Impossible!” I can hear the outcries and agree that this is impossible today because colleges have allowed finer and finer course titles to emerge rather than insist that courses be used for broader audiences. Why, for example, are there three different, major specific ethics courses offered at one institution when one might suffice with minor tinkering of homework and assignments?
Step Four: Measure what matters. Currently, we measure nearly everything that doesn’t matter to our customers — Vermont students. Let’s measure — and provide economic incentives for — work readiness, job placement and career development. This is not a ding against liberal arts, but a proposal to expand the notion that liberal arts should be assistive in getting students well on the path to self sustainability and responsible citizenship beyond concept and into practice.
Colleges don’t teach students, faculty do. I am certain that among the current ranks of faculty, few actually know with certainty what the current job market is like. Many of us have not looked for a job in many years. This is not a criticism of faculty — simply a reminder that faculty will need information, help and training in re-engineering courses with career development in mind.
Step Five: Pay more, expect more. OK, you say, I’d expect this from a current VSC employee. But as someone who spent half his career in manufacturing, I will state this with certainty: VSC employees are not paid well, but we are not asked to work that hard. If you have stood at the end of an automated machine for 10 hours while checking parts, or stood at a service counter for eight, you will experience a fatigue that is generally not found in higher education at any level. There are, of course, VSC exceptions, and for those individuals I apologize. 
Here’s the sad part. I believe that there are still many individuals who would gladly work harder for higher wages. But union contracts, constructs, and culture inhibit extraordinary reward for extraordinary individuals. There is a huge, untapped reservoir of capacity that only extraordinary leadership among employees and administration can catalyze. 
Step Six: The nuclear option. Let’s imagine we are unable, unwilling or otherwise incapable of saving ourselves. Then, I would suggest the nuclear option — close one college per year until we set ourselves straight. Eventually state funding (which will never really increase in our lifetimes) will be enough to cover the one, two or three remaining colleges. As painful as this is, it may be the only option to break free of the iceberg.
There is not a single idea here that is new. What would be new would be the courage to act. I hope we have that courage. 

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