Murphy, Donovan endorse Shumlin’s higher ed. proposals


Deb Bouton

Johnson State College President Barbara Murphy

Part II in a series

Johnson State College President Barbara Murphy and Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Tim Donovan have both welcomed Gov. Peter Shumlin’s inaugural address proposals for increasing higher education funding at the five state colleges and UVM.
Among Shumlin’s proposals was a 3 percent hike in appropriations, certainly good news for a state college system that receives less than 20 percent of its operating budget from the Legislature. In terms of public funding for higher education, Vermont ranks at the bottom of the 50 states.

“Vermont is a good place that cares about people, cares about development and is quite good at caring for its young,” said Murphy. “Nobody intentionally set out to underfund public colleges and universities. But because we’re entities that can charge for our services people look at colleges and say ‘Well, you guys get to charge money, you have another way of making money’ so we became an easy target to disinvest in.”

While Murphy acknowledged that proposed increase was modest, that fact that it was being proposed at all was significant. “I am really pleased about [the proposed 3 percent increase in higher education funding] because we’ve seen a decline over the past 25-plus years,” said Murphy.  “Three percent is not a whole lot of dollars for the college but its symbolic value is huge. Even though some people are skeptical, I am a believer [in higher education] and the numbers show that education is definitely linked to more earnings over a lifetime, to a higher quality of life, to higher citizen participation. So, in this climate I think that people are certain, skeptics aside, that education really is a key to a sturdier economic future for individuals as well as for the nation. Anything that makes higher ed. more accessible and sends a positive message that this is worth investing in even in a tight economic time, I think it’s just a really good heads-up and awareness for people. We are seeing the light. We need to fund education better and make it more within people’s reach and aspirations.”

For Donovan, the application of that proposed increase to defray student tuition expenses is important but will only go so far.

“Our current appropriation is $23,107,000 and it would increase by 3 percent of that which is $693,000. That divided by five colleges is $138,000 per college,” said Donovan. “What the governor has asked us to do, and we agreed to do, for the first increase we’ve seen in five years is to use this increase in ways that help with affordability for Vermont students. So that will play out differently in each of the colleges because of the nature of their financial aid packages and the nature of their programs.”

Obviously this will not help all Vermont students based on their financial situation but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

While the five Vermont State Colleges are using their increase to help with tuition assistance, UVM has promised to freeze its tuition with the increased funding.  Unfortunately, at this time the VSC are unable to provide that same benefit to their Vermont students. “We enroll many, many more Vermont students and we have a significantly smaller appropriation,” said Donovan. “We would have to have an 11 percent increase in our appropriations to equal holding tuition levels, just because we have more students to apply it to and we have a smaller appropriation,” said Donovan.

In addition to the 3 percent increase in appropriations, the Governor also proposed dual enrollment and the Vermont Strong Scholars program. “I think it’s a great idea [Vermont Strong Scholars program] and I think it could encourage speedier completion and help meet the goal of just reminding us that Vermont’s environment requires our investments continually,” said Murphy.

The chancellor echoed Murphy’s sentiments: “I am absolutely [in support of the governor’s plans] and we were very pleased to have the governor ask us to help us craft those ideas and develop them. I support his initiatives very, very much.”

Ed note: in the third installment, Brown will interview key members of the Vermont Senate and House regarding funding of the Vermont State Colleges.