The late, beloved baseball catcher, Yogi Berra, wasn’t a scholar, but he was a master of malaprop. Think of him as an Archie Bunker in Yankees pinstripes. Yet when it comes to capturing the current dilemma facing Vermont higher education, his line “It’s déjà vu all over again” is as much on the mark as were his throws to second base to catch a stealing base runner.
It is old news that Vermont’s symbiotic relationship with higher education has been especially problematic. As one newspaper dramatized, “In the general educational confusion the problem of higher education occupies a peculiar and unfortunate position.” That comment, though, wasn’t written in response to Jeb Spaulding’s launch of his not-so-smart bomb at three VSC campuses in April. It was written a century ago, in 1915, and episodically ever since, Vermont’s connection with its colleges has continued to be “peculiar and unfortunate.”
Those problems intensified as Vermont entered the 1960s. In early 1961, Gov. Ray Keyser proposed selling or leasing Lyndon State Teachers College and turning it into a private, four-year college. Surprisingly, the plan was approved by senior lawmakers from the Northeast Kingdom. The idea failed, and as 1961 wore on, a consolidated Vermont State Colleges system was created. By 1962, the new VSC trustees were already fretting about college affordability and institutional viability. That November, Democrat Phil Hoff won a historic — but narrow — election as governor, a victory attributed in part to Keyser’s plan to close Lyndon State. The decade closed with a new governor, Deane Davis, ironically casting the defeated Keyser to lead a special commission to study Vermont’s higher education goals.
It was Davis, more than any other governor of the modern era, who shaped Vermont state government’s current posture toward postsecondary education. Davis’ commission considered many ideas, including one far outside-the-box: namely, dropping support for Vermont state colleges and giving the money directly to students. Even Keyser felt the idea wasn’t feasible, but “he wanted to leave the subject open for future consideration.”
That future came quickly. Little more than a year later, in January 1971, Davis delivered his budget proposal to the Legislature. “The theme of this message is realism,” he told a joint session, “I am presenting a realistic budget based upon realistic assessment of revenues and a realistic appraisal of what we must spend to meet the state’s needs.”
Davis called for holding the line on all General Fund expenditures, but he did make two, significant exceptions: social welfare and student financial aid. Whereas the University of Vermont and the state colleges were to see no increases in state assistance, funding for the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. was to be doubled. UVM and the VSC, a Davis aide later explained, would be forced to raise tuition, but the VSAC grant program would be increased to help lower-income Vermonters afford the costs of higher education. Davis decided, according to the aide, “the emphasis should be placed on the student rather than the institution.” And so a new policy was born: “high-tuition, high-aid.”
David Breneman, a now-retired, nationally respected postsecondary analyst, characterized high-tuition, high-aid as a strategy where “tuition would rise closer to the average cost of instruction, thereby reducing the subsidy that is currently received by every student who enrolls,” and where “a larger share of the cost of higher education is borne by high-income families, and a lower share by taxpayers.”
That is the theory. The practice has been somewhat different. Over time, it has been easier to maintain high tuition than it has been to preserve high aid. Now, some student financial aid experts believe a more appropriate description should be “high-tuition, low-aid.”
This, then, is the predicament in which the governor, the Legislature, Vermont’s public colleges and Vermont taxpayers find themselves: What do we want to achieve with higher education and how are we going to fund it? Since Ray Keyser proposed eliminating Lyndon State Teachers College in 1961, Vermont has pondered that question. Governor after governor has proposed study commission after study commission to find a solution, to no avail.
Now, another effort apparently will be made. This time, we are told, it will be different. But if we squint with our mind’s eye, somewhere up yonder in that great baseball diamond in the sky, we might glimpse an old catcher brushing the dirt off his uniform, pounding his mitt and looking down. With a sly grin and a wink of an eye, he’s reminding us, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Bruce S. Post was a professional state member for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Education. He lives in Essex.