Tuition just part of larger inquiry
Castleton State College and the rest of the Vermont State Colleges system rely heavily on tuition as their primary source of revenue.
On Dec. 7, this newspaper carried a headline and story which characterized the Vermont State Colleges Committee on Finance and Facilities as “mulling [sic] tiered tuition.” In order to remedy the confusion that has resulted from that story and the editorial that stemmed from it, I want to describe the strategic inquiry that was actually under discussion at the meeting.
Vermont’s level of state support is second to last in the nation, and equals roughly 15 percent of the VSC overall budget. This means 85 percent of our revenue is tuition-driven. This public policy is largely unintentional but has undoubtedly resulted in a heavy reliance on tuition as the primary source of revenue for the state colleges and their sister institution, the University of Vermont.
VSC tuition prices are high relative to public colleges outside of Vermont. Our costs of delivering an education are at or below national benchmarks. Overlaid on the Vermont educational environment, a very important national conversation about higher education, open courses and technological innovation is occurring.
In response to these and other trends, it is my hope that the board of trustees of the VSC will endorse a proposal in February to postpone our tuition vote, which would have set tuition for the year after next, and commit to investing the time and energy to plot a comprehensive and sustainable course of action for the colleges.
The framework of this inquiry will be the centerpiece of our discussions during the February board cycle, but the outcomes may be unknown for another 10 months. This is an analysis that deserves careful thought.
The Vermont State Colleges remain the most affordable higher education option in Vermont. The five colleges — Castleton, the Community College of Vermont, Johnson, Lyndon and Vermont Technical College — collectively enroll roughly 11,000 Vermont students annually. To put that in perspective, it is more than 2.5 times the number served at the University of Vermont and is more than 60 percent of the Vermont students who enroll in post-secondary degree programs here in the state of Vermont.
These colleges serve a substantial number of students who are the first in their family to attend college, providing them a gateway to the relative economic security of a post-secondary degree and bending the curve on generational poverty.Economic data continue to indicate that unemployment is lower among those with a college degree, and earnings are elevated. As public colleges across the nation face the challenge of reduced budgets or low levels of state support, their strategy is to recruit more out-of-state and international students. The VSC have instead sustained a mission-based commitment to Vermont students, and 84 percent of those in the system are Vermonters.
Our inquiry over the next year must focus both on the educational experience at these five colleges, the support we provide to students and on the financial environment in which they operate. Financial decisions that have been made based on current models may need to be reoriented to reflect what is widely considered to be an era of unprecedented change for higher education.
Vermont’s state colleges are not immune to that change. Nor is any other college or university. Because these colleges are in a good place but operating in a highly fluid context, this is the right time for this undertaking. The fact is, the VSC board hasn’t “mulled” anything yet, much less tiered tuition. It is my hope that the board and the colleges together will consider many things in the coming months. These are understandably complex issues, but when a news story or editorial reduces it to one concept out of a discussion that was and will be wide-ranging and deliberately open-ended, the Vermonters we serve, the 2,200 faculty and staff who work in the VSC and engaged citizens across the state are done a disservice.
Tim Donovan is chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. Gary Moore is chairman of the board of trustees.