Guest editorial: The Vermont state college challenge

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding has a single message for Vermont legislators: The five-college system has been cut to the bone, jobs have been pared and expenses cut, and if the $4 million he’s asked for does not materialize, and if state support continues to be meager, legislators may be put in the position of deciding which VSC campus is most expendable.
At this juncture, it looks as if Mr. Spaulding may get his money. Legislators generally support the VSC system and its mission. But there is also a growing sense of frustration. If the VSC system is in such dire straits, then how is the $4 million to be used to improve things so that additional appropriations are not needed in subsequent years?
The answers are not readily apparent. Nor are they easy. The state of the VSC system is both underreported and misunderstood. At many levels, the problems we’re encountering at the preK-12 level are on full display at VSC.
Let’s start from the beginning: When students are graduated from our high schools, almost a third go out of state for their higher education. Almost 40 percent of our graduates have no postsecondary education plans. Of the 30 percent remaining, 28 percent of our students go to the University of Vermont, 19 percent go to other independent schools in the state, and 53 percent go into the VSC, with almost half attending the Community College of Vermont.
The battle is over the dwindling number of students in our preK-12 system. The 25,000 fewer students makes it more difficult for the VSC system to attract enough students interested in postsecondary education. A high percentage of the ones they do attract are first-generation college students, a cohort that has less support — at all levels — and more challenges.
The result is a less than desirable outcome when it comes to graduate rates.
The four-year graduation rate at Castleton University is roughly 32 percent. Vermont Tech’s is a notch higher at 33 percent. Johnson State College is at 17 percent and Lyndon State College is at 18 percent.
By comparison, the four-year graduation rate at UVM is 65 percent.
This matters because as the time it takes for students to graduate slips to five or six years, the costs increase accordingly. Most important, if students enroll but do not graduate, they have the debt but not the degree.
And it’s the debt load throughout the VSC system (with the exception of CCV, which confers two-year degrees) that is also of concern. Students at Lyndon, Johnson and Castleton, carry a higher median debt load than students at UVM.
All of this plays out where it matters most, which is the end product, a bachelor’s degree. As expected, the University of Vermont leads the state with the number of bachelor’s degrees — over 2,300. VSC’s total is less than half that with a little over 1,000.
But UVM has a higher total of Vermont students getting bachelor’s degrees than the VSC system does even though UVM has a fraction of the number of Vermont students that VSC has.
From a sheer “investment” perspective, the return on the dollar invested in UVM far outstrips the investment in the VSC system.
That’s Mr. Spaulding’s challenge.
Today, there are two things in play; one is immediate, one is longer term. The immediate involves the $26 million the state could save if the Legislature were to agree with the governor on the need to have a statewide healthcare contract with our teachers. The savings would be annual, and it could free up some essential funding necessary for higher education writ large. (Vermont’s contribution to higher education is pathetically small — we’re dead last nationally in our appropriation levels.)
The longer-term challenge is figuring out what can be done to improve the graduation rate for VSC students. The $4 million that Mr. Spaulding says is essential to keep the VSC system afloat could quickly be made up if its retention rate were improved. Reportedly, if the VSC system could reduce the freshman dropout rate by 5 percent (which means having that additional 5 percent enter their second year), the $4 million deficit the system needs would be met without the state appropriation. The longer the students stay in school, the more revenue the school generates, which helps offset the cost of instruction and overhead, costs that are obligated once the student is enrolled.
With the graduation rate at VSC so low, the upside would seem enormous. That is the sort of improvement the Legislature should insist upon. If the appropriation is to be made, then what, precisely, is VSC doing to improve its retention rate?
There have to be expectations built into our appropriations. We don’t have extra pots of money and the money we do spend needs to be carefully thought out in terms of what we get in return. No excuses.
That means keeping an open mind to what may be required. It may be that the VSC system that exists isn’t the model that works given our quickly changing demographics.
Most important, however, is the obvious role that our preK-12 system plays in this debate. We need to do a better job educating our soon-to-graduate students about college finances, student loans, etc. We need to focus more on the ties that can be established early in a student’s life that make postsecondary education an expectation, not an exception. We need to work on dual enrollment opportunities.
But for the debate that rests before us, our legislators need to work with Mr. Spaulding and the VSC system to establish a better set of expectations and objectives. What we have now isn’t working — for either side.
 — Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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