At a late October news conference, the University of Vermont announced some good news. For the 2021-22 academic year, UVM would freeze tuition and room and board and cut student fees, the third year in a row the university has held its tuition increase to zero.
The announcement was noteworthy for two reasons. By setting the cost of attending UVM in 2021 at a rate lower than it was in 2020, it bucked national trends, making the university more — not less — accessible for students and families.
It also demonstrated, in concrete terms, that the university is beginning to deliver on a series of ambitious commitments.
Since my tenure as UVM president began in July 2019, and even in the months before I arrived, I have been a virtual broken record on several key themes.
We need to reduce the cost of attendance; annual tuition increases, even small ones, are not indefinitely sustainable. UVM must guarantee student success by creating a college experience that prepares students for successful careers after they graduate. We need to expand and more fully realize UVM’s role as the state’s land-grant university. And we must focus our research efforts in distinctive areas to raise UVM’s national profile, while also benefiting the state and larger society.
After they served as consistent touch points in my communications, these ambitious goals were formalized early this year in the university’s strategic vision, Amplifying Our Impact (go.uvm.edu/vision).
While the goals are relatively new, enough time has passed that it’s fair for Vermonters to ask a straightforward question: How are we doing?
The short answer: It is early, but we’re making real headway. Let me elaborate.
In freezing costs for next year, we showed that our zero tuition increase announcement last year was no flash in the pan and that my commitment to making UVM more accessible wasn’t just aspirational. The freeze covers all students, undergraduate, graduate, in-state and out-of-state alike. Room-and-board costs, which have increased at an average rate of 3.2% over the past eight years, will be frozen for the first time in more than three decades. Student fees have rarely, if ever, been cut in the past.
This year we added another new element to our affordability campaign. The “Student Opportunity, Access and Recruitment” campaign — SOAR for short (go.uvm.edu/soar) — which launched last month, seeks to raise $150 million in financial support for undergraduate and graduate students, with special focus on underrepresented and underserved students. Given the enthusiasm of our alumni for this project, I’m confident we can exceed this amount. In fact, we’ve already raised more than $18 million.
We’ve made progress on other fronts, as well.
To promote student success, UVM has been laser-focused on increasing the number of internships, especially paid internships, available to our students. Why? Statistics show that students who intern, and can afford to do so, are more likely to land higher-paying jobs more quickly after graduation, often with the organization they interned with.
In the last year, we formed partnerships with several large companies, such as Global Foundries, who will offer paid internships to our students. Several more of these corporate partnerships are in the offing. And our new Office of Engagement will have staff solely devoted to identifying Vermont companies who offer paid internships and connecting our students with them.
UVM has always been strongly committed to its land-grant mission. The issue was always logistical: how to connect Vermonters with the specific part of the university that could help them. Thanks to the Office of Engagement, created with special funding from the Vermont Legislature, we have finally found a way to better match the university’s land-grant commitment with its ability to actually help Vermonters. The office will act as a front door to UVM, guiding Vermonters and Vermont organizations to people and offices that can help.
In research, UVM made a major leap forward last year, netting $182 million in research funding, a 26% increase over the prior year and an all-time high. During the next few years, we’ll bring even more energy to our research enterprise, with the goal of further increasing external funding. We’ve also chosen two areas of research focus, laid out in Amplifying Our Impact — fostering healthy societies and a healthy environment — where the university is already strong and has the potential to make a significant impact nationally and internationally.
Adding brainpower and funding support to these areas will also benefit Vermont, enabling us to devote even more resources, for instance, to helping the state meet the EPA’s phosphorus reduction goals for Lake Champlain. And clinical trials such as the one we’re now conducting for the coronavirus vaccine will only increase, along with other medical research that will help the state’s residents.
I’m proud of other promises we’ve kept as well, like our commitment to bringing students back to campus safely, so they could continue their education while also helping support a local economy that relies on them. As many Vermonters know, UVM has one of the lowest COVID-19 positivity rates in the country, even with the recent increase in cases, thanks to an aggressive testing program and a partnership with the state to rigorously contact-trace and quarantine the few who have tested positive.
The bottom line: We’re off to a good start, but we’re only in the first quarter. I hope you’ll share our pride that we’ve accomplished so much in a short 18 months. But I’m also counting on Vermonters to hold our feet to the fire. Please pay close attention and hold us to our commitments.
Suresh V. Garimella is University of Vermont president.
Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.