Vermont College Closures is a Question of Values

The State College System, pleading financial distress, is proposing to close three rural campuses. Let’s push pause and consider the significance of this for the state and our students.

The Vermont State College system serves students who are:

  1. disproportionately working class,
  2. often the first in their families to go to college,
  3. from Vermont.

The specifics of the proposal are likely to further disadvantage regions that are already struggling. Because the three campuses proposed to close are all in rural areas, this effectively rips economic activity and a force for economic innovation out of rural communities, while strengthening programs primarily in Chittenden County. 

Post closure, what will be the long-term impact on prospects for economic development and middle-class or high wage jobs in these rural areas?

And, what will be the impact on young people—often the first in their families to go to college—in these rural communities?

Because the proposal concentrates education activities in Chittenden County, the Northeast Kingdom, central Vermont, and the southeast no longer have easy access to a state program.  The proposed new program is “residentially light,” which makes it even harder to access by Vermont students who live in underserved parts of the state. This proposal has potentially devastating long-term impacts on postsecondary participation, particularly by working class Vermonters, who may need to live at home or work part time while attending school. These are the very Vermonters we most need to guarantee the education that gives them access to jobs that pay good wages.

None of us should forget that as much as finances, this is a decision about values.  

Almost all states ensure access to college by less wealthy students by making sure tuition is low. The “Vermont Model” for higher education has been to underfund the state college system and instead direct resources to tuition grants that students can use in or out of state. In other words, it limits funding to our Vermont State Colleges and it forces those colleges to compete nationally with schools that are often lower priced because of their own state support and, in the case of private schools, because they have huge endowments and financial aid programs.

As a state, we have decided on an elevator approach to opportunity: we will let a few disadvantaged students succeed and rise, even as we gut the institutions that exist to provide access to opportunity for most of our disadvantaged students. We do this despite evidence these are the students most likely to make their lives in Vermont.

This is not a new situation; it has been developing for years, as this 2002 article from SevenDays demonstrates:

“Last in the Class: Why Vermont scores lowest in the nation for funding higher ed”

Rather than trying to raise all boats, we’ve chosen a Republican strategy that rations opportunity for a select few Vermonters. When a handful of more-advantaged students take dollars out of state, there are fewer dollars here in Vermont to support the opportunity on which many working-class Vermonters depend. On this, I agree with Rep. Peter Welch, who was then a state Senator, and in the article said: “This “portability” feature allowing VSAC grants to be spent at out-of-state institutions ought to be eliminated, with the money then used to directly aid UVM and the state colleges.”

No doubt, the state faces enormous budget challenges for the foreseeable future. No institution will come through this unchanged, even with funding. The institutions that survive will be ones that transform themselves. This will require swift and deliberate action on the part of leadership and understanding of our shared fiscal challenges from our students and community members – it must be a team effort. But let’s be clear: no state has a bright economic future if it can’t guarantee equitable opportunity that enables its people to acquire the education and training necessary for a prosperous future.

I support the calls from legislative leadership, and from Northern Vermont University’s faculty assemblies and alumni councils, to delay the board vote scheduled for tomorrow on the future structure of Northern Vermont University’s Lyndon and Johnson campuses and Vermont Tech’s Randolph campus. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever before that for Vermont to have the promise of a prosperous future, we must be willing to have the courage to address a number of longstanding structural issues including, but not limited to the state college system:

  • Access to high speed internet for all Vermonters
  • Accessible & equitable public education from birth through college
  • Affordable & accessible housing
  • Healthcare as a right, not a privilege

This decision is bigger than our state college system. It is a decision about who we are as Vermonters and what kind of economic future we will have as a state. If we allow public institutions that provide higher education to a disproportionate number of less wealthy Vermonters living outside Chittenden County to wither and die, what message are we sending to Vermont families and students today and into the future?

I am running for governor to lead a Vermont that believes all Vermonters deserve a shot at prosperity, and I believe we must fully consider whether closures of Northern Vermont University and Vermont Tech Randolph threaten our ability to achieve that vision.