Hundreds rally for increased funding for Vt. State Colleges


VSC Student Government Association presidents speak on the Statehouse steps at the Feb. 7 rally as interpreter Stephanie Cramer signs.

On Feb. 7 over 200 students, faculty and staff from the Vermont State Colleges gathered on the steps of the Statehouse to advocate for increased funding for the Vermont State Colleges.

Two buses sponsored by the JSC Student Government Association brought over 80 Johnson students to the rally, most wearing matching white shirts that listed their individual debt upon graduation. They listened to fellow students, SGA members, and a few legislators talk about the problems in Vermont’s higher education funding on the Statehouse steps.

The students then roamed the building to seek out legislators with petitions to vote “no” on Vermont Governor Shumlin’s budget proposal until their debt is addressed. Many then stayed to provide support for a closed-door meeting between selected facilitators of the rally and Shumlin.

Vermont ranks at the very bottom in terms of state appropriations for student aid in higher education, and the speakers on the steps shared their own stories about student debt. JSC junior Erika Salter recounted how she is faced with $24,000 of student debt even after receiving a full Pell grant.

Salter received a small inheritance last semester when her mother died, and she worried that the slight income could have nullified her eligibility for student aid. “It is possibly enough to take away all of my financial aid for the next two to three years of school, so that’s kind of scary for my sister and me,” said Salter.

Vermont State Senator Philip Baruth compared student debt to indentured servitude in how it grows over time. Speaking on the Statehouse steps, he told the crowd the situation is worse than many people realize: “You’re wearing shirts that have your debt written on them, that’s not your debt,” said Baruth. “Your debt is almost twice that when you finish 30 years of interest. It’s a horrible, unacceptable situation.”

After spending about 45 minutes outside, the SGA presidents handed out petitions to the students with instructions to find and talk with the legislator whose name and photograph are displayed.

The petitions listed facts about the Vermont State College system. In particular, the petitions featured a quote from State Statutes that addressed the formation of the VSC: “There is hereby created as a part of the educational system of the state of Vermont a public corporation to be known as ‘Vermont State Colleges,’ which shall plan, supervise, administer and operate facilities for education above the high school level supported in whole or in substantial part with state funds.”

Only 18 percent of the overall operating expenses of the five Vermont State Colleges is derived from public funds. With tuition being raised 4 percent for each of the next two years, students are sinking deeper into debt.

“It’s time to get tuition off the backs of our students and instead hold the state accountable for what they’ve talked about for a long time,” said John Kleinhans, Chair of the VSC SGA and student member on the Vermont State Colleges board of trustees. Kleinhans played a major role in the organization of the rally, calling for action in the Legislature to reduce student debt. “They may be able to talk a big game, now they’ve got to play a big game,” said Kleinhans. “Sign the pledge to fund the Vermont state colleges at an adequate and effective level, don’t continue to put it on the backs of the students.”

It’s not that simple, according to Representative Martha Heath, Chair of the Appropriations Committee. “In the 1970s Vermont decided to be a high tuition and high aid state,” said Heath. “The concept was that tuition would be high but we would provide enough for needy Vermonters to get proper funding. We haven’t done a good enough job keeping up with the aid side.”

Heath said that before the economic recession, the state was working on leveling out the balance between tuition and financial aid, but those efforts were postponed as the budget tightened. She believes that although higher education funding is not ideal, it is not a major problem that justifies pulling in funding away from other needed areas.

JSC SGA President James Demsey said that the petitions were presented to Shumlin during the private meeting. “John Kleinhans presented about 40 or 50 petitions, and that was about 45 minutes to an hour of work,” he said. “I think everyone did a pretty good job.”

Student and faculty representatives from each of the Vermont State Colleges attended the meeting, along with a few individuals from the University of Vermont. “We were there to voice our concerns about the Vermont State Colleges, how they’ve received less funding and tuition has been increasing,” said Dempsey. “I think [Shumlin] was listening and I think he was sympathetic to a certain level but I think he could have been more so than what was shown.”

Dempsey stressed the importance of the rally as a starting point for constructive dialogue on the issue of funding for the VSC. “It starts the thought and it starts the conversation,” he said. “We got our message out and that was our first crucial step.”