A glance at a recent study seems to indicate Vermont is doing well on financing higher education. The University of Pennsylvania's College Opportunity Risk Assessment, released this week, ranked Vermont high overall in comparison with other states on access to higher education. Vermont did particularly well in higher education funding and productivity, ranking fifth overall and number one in the country on investment in higher education per degree produced. That might sound at first glance like Vermont spends a lot, but the ranking means the opposite — Vermont spends the least per degree, meaning the money is being spent most "productively." Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, said a different metric that did not show up in the study tells a less flattering, but more accurate, story of higher education in Vermont. "We have the lowest state investment per full-time equivalent college student in the country," he said. "As a result of that, we have one of the highest tuitions." Spaulding said the Legislature gave the state colleges their first meaningful budget increase in recent memory last year, increasing the base appropriation by $3 million. However, he said that was not enough to change the conundrum faced by Vermont high school graduates seeking affordable higher education. "I think they're trying to help us," he said of the Legislature. "What we need is a predictable, steady increase over time, not the feast or famine we've had." Joni Finney, professor of practice at Penn's Graduate School of Education and director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education, said funding productivity is one of the metrics used by the federal government. "The reason we selected this is there is not a firm research base that tells us how much you spend results in improved outcomes," Finney said. "Interestingly enough, the same is true in K-12 education. How you use those dollars is as important as the amount." Finney acknowledged that regardless of what it does to the quality of education, state spending on higher education affects access in ways it does not at the K-12 level. Higher state spending allows for lower tuition, which in turn increases access. Finney also said the effect of that lack of access shows up elsewhere in the report. Vermont ranks 46th in the country for affordability, with students and families on average paying 35.3 percent of their family income for post-secondary education. Vermont ranked dead last in timely completion of associate's degrees, with only 14.2 percent of community college students finishing them within three years. "One cause of that is affordability," she said. "Another is the amount of time students must work. ... In most colleges, it's not even possible to work your way through anymore." Finney said her prescription is not greater state funding for the institutions, but a more robust needs-based financial aid program that gives more power to the students. Overall, the report urged every state to do better in order to assure the country's workforce has the sort of education it needs to compete and "look beyond college sticker price and state appropriations."

Castleton University President Karen Scolforo said her institution was already answering one of the report's calls — a shift of focus away from facilities and programming and toward increasing student numbers.

"We’ve done this through articulation agreements with community colleges, more flexible schedule options, fully-online curriculum, and work towards developing meaningful micro-credentials and cooperative learning models that will place students in the workplace as part of their educational experience," Scolforo wrote in an email. "Our focus over the past six months has made a Castleton University education more accessible, more affordable, and more meaningful.”

Jess DeCarolis, personalization and flexible pathways director for the Vermont Department of Education, said the state was working both on increasing opportunities for adult learners and ways for students to take college classes in high school.

Finney also said states have kept education policy in "silos" — K-12 education, post-secondary education and state finance policy are all treated as separate issues, when in reality, she said, they are closely related enough that the state would benefit from considering them together. "We're going to have to start working across these silos," she said.  

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