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With enrollment down, state colleges begin own efficiency push

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Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, told lawmakers recently about an effort to consolidate functions among the institutions to save money.

In an echo of the school district consolidation efforts around the state, Vermont State Colleges, a public corporation, is looking for ways to save money through efficiencies of scale while offering more opportunities to students.

“We are being proactive and working together as a system to ensure that the limited number of dollars we have are spent on the most important thing: the student experience,” Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding told lawmakers last week.

VSC’s long-range planning committee directed the presidents of Castleton University, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College to come up with ways to consolidate and better coordinate functions. Their recommendations will be considered by the board of trustees at its July meeting.

The hope is to keep each campus operating with its own identity but to avoid duplication and streamline administration. “If our colleges are to remain financially viable, we must find ways to lower our cost of delivery and target available funding to the kinds of things that contribute to a high-quality educational experience for our students,” said Jerome Diamond, chairman of the planning committee.

Like the state’s pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school system, the state colleges are suffering from declining enrollment. They, too, have seen increases in health care costs for their employees. Yet state funding of the colleges remains flat, unlike the annual increases in education spending at the elementary and secondary levels.

State funding to the colleges has not increased since 2008, and Gov. Peter Shumlin has level-funded the state colleges again in his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, according to Spaulding. In the past, colleges have relied on tuition in the absence of higher state spending—18 percent of the colleges’ budget comes from the state, and 82 percent from tuition and other sources—but now enrollment is not going up.

“We are really going backward, swimming as hard as we can,” said Spaulding. “We actually have 172 fewer people working for the state colleges. We can’t keep doing that forever.” He said administrators have chosen not to fill vacancies and have deferred maintenance.

Vermont’s state college tuition is among the highest of any state in the nation. Although the state has one of the highest high school graduation rates, it lags when it comes to the number of students who go on to college and graduate.

“Vermont has the highest cost for continuing education in the country,” Spaulding said. “This is stopping kids from going to college.” This break in the student pipeline is happening at the same time that policymakers want to increase the number of Vermonters with post-secondary degrees to 60 percent, from 45.5 percent.

“We are hoping that over the next 30 years we can move ourselves into a position where we are not so reliant on tuition and students can afford to go to their state colleges and not end up with the amount of debt we are seeing,” Spaulding said.

Many of the Vermonters who go to the state colleges are the first generation in their families to attend college. Last year, 583 degrees were earned by first-generation students. Typically, these students are more expensive to support, since they often are not as academically prepared, according to Spaulding. They also often have to work outside of school to support themselves, and that makes it harder to earn a degree, he said.

“If we are able to attract more Vermonters to go to college and actually graduate from college, the [expanded] programs would start to increase in cost, [and] the economic advantage would pay off in terms of revenues. More Vermonters would be in the workforce,” Spaulding said, adding that fewer people would end up in the criminal justice system and using social services. “It should pay for itself,” he said.

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