College students push funding issue at rally
By JOSH O’GORMAN
Vermont Press Bureau | March 12,2014
Josh O’Gorman / Staff Photo
Students rally in support of potentially increasing state aid for higher education Tuesday at the State House in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — Declining state support for higher education has resulted in crippling student debt and will hinder those who wish to stay in the state after graduation.
That was the message offered Tuesday at the State House, where several dozen students and faculty members from the state’s colleges held a rally in support of a Senate bill that would look at increasing the amount the state contributes to higher education.
“We think that the state colleges need more funding, as does (the University of Vermont),” said Linda Olson, professor of sociology and women’s studies at Castleton State College and president of the Vermont State Colleges Faculty Federation. “It’s really getting to the point where it’s making higher education unaffordable for students and it’s going to impact the quality of education we provide if we don’t get more state funding.”
Olson and others would like to reverse a decadeslong trend that has seen an ever-smaller percentage of higher education funding coming from the state. In 1980, 51 percent of financial support for Vermont’s state colleges came from the state. Today, that number is 15 percent, with the lion’s share of the difference being made up by tuition.
That shift is leaving students swimming in debt — students such as 19-year-old Jazmin Spear, a junior at Castleton State College who is double-majoring in social work and sociology.
“I have zero financial support from my family because they are unable to,” Spear said. “All of my financial burden is on me.” In a demonstration of just how concerned she is about her finances, she gave an exact figure for her student debt: $22,302.70.
“I still have one year left, so who knows what that year will bring,” Spear said. “I feel like I’m drowning in student debt, and once I graduate I have to find a job that will allow me to live under that huge amount of debt.”
Of the 50 states, only New Hampshire offers less support to its state colleges than Vermont.
“If people realize that Vermont is the second-to-last state in student funding, it will deter them from coming here,” Spear said.
Despite increasing education costs, per-student state appropriations have declined, from $3,342 per student in 1990 to $3,231 in 2011.
Spear and others spoke in support of S.40, a Senate bill that calls for a study of the feasibility of restoring state funding to the 1980 level of 51 percent and looking at other ways to lower tuition costs. The Senate passed it in 2013.
So, what would a return to a 1980 level of funding mean, in terms of real dollars? For fiscal year 2013, Vermont State Colleges collected approximately $112 million in tuition and fees and received a state appropriation of $25 million.
An even 50-50 split between tuition and appropriation would require an additional $43 million from the state.
“We realize that there is no room in the budget for $43 million,” said Dan Smith, director of community relations and public policy for Vermont State Colleges. “We want to approach this study with a level of realism and pragmatism, realizing it will take a number of years to return funding to the prior level.”
By some measures, Vermont’s state colleges offer real benefit to the local population. Eighty-one percent of students are from Vermont, including 19-year-old Castleton State College junior Marie Burt.
Not only is Burt from Vermont, but from Castleton. In fact, her father graduated from CSC in the 1970s. Recently, she reviewed a tuition bill showing her father paid $700 a semester, which adjusted for inflation would be about $2,000 today.
Burt is paying more than $4,000 a semester.
“I think higher education for students in Vermont should be something that is affordable since most are local students who are trying to get educations to boost their careers in the future, so they can stay and work in Vermont and support their families in Vermont,” Burt said.
Among Vermont State Colleges students, 54 percent are the first in their family to go to college. Julie Marie Theoret is chairwoman of the math department at Johnson State College. In the early 1990s, however, she was the first in her family to attend college when she went to UVM.
She and others are urging the Legislature to “Reclaim the Promise” — there’s a Facebook page with that title — by restoring past funding levels.
“It was a promise made by the Legislature many, many years ago to fund Vermont colleges in whole or substantial part. I teach math, and 15 percent is not substantial, no matter how you define it,” Theoret said. “Of the students who graduate from Vermont state colleges, a majority stay in Vermont to work and live and contribute to the economy. An investment in the Vermont State Colleges and public higher education in Vermont is an investment in Vermont.”