Why do VSC graduates have so much debt?


Getting a decent-paying job in this economy seems extremely difficult without having some form of higher education under your belt. However, if you live in Vermont, the high personal cost of a college education is driving many high school graduates either out-of-state or directly into the workforce.

Because of Vermont’s low state funding of the Vermont State Colleges, Vermonters pay the second highest in-state tuition in the country, behind New Hampshire. However, according to data from the VSC Chancellor’s office, out of the major colleges in the area that Vermonters go to, Johnson and Lyndon State Colleges come out as the least expensive at a little over $14,000 for tuition.

So why do Johnson and Lyndon students come out of college with a median debt of over $26,000? This is on par with more expensive schools, such as: Champlain College, Colby Sawyer, and St. Michael’s College. Champlain College costs $33,000 in tuition annually, Colby Sawyer costs $38,000, and St. Michael’s comes out on top with a cost of almost $43,000.

This amount of debt is high by national standards; according to the University of Pennsylvania GSE’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, students at four-year public schools tend to borrow an average of $4,102 annually.

This trend isn’t restricted to four-year institutions: According to the same source, Vermont’s community college system is the third most expensive in the country, requiring approximately 29 percent of family income to attend. This is the same percentage of family income required to attend the University of Vermont.

Part of the reason could be that Vermonters have the highest family share of tuition in the country. According to State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO), Vermont families are saddled with 82 percent of the cost of college, as compared to Wyoming, which holds the lowest percentage of 15.



This high family cost is directly related to Vermont’s state funding of higher education.

According to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, Vermont ranks as the fourth lowest state for fiscal support for higher education. In 1980, the State of Vermont provided 51 percent of operating expenses to the VSC, while tuition and fees covered 49 percent. In 2011, the state provided 19.7 percent and tuition and fees covered 80.3 percent. Between these years have been a near constant decline of state funding and rise of tuition and fees.

“This has been going on for decades, where state support has been declining as a percentage of total revenues for the Vermont State College system. And, ultimately, I think it’s a choice that the Legislature made to put their priorities elsewhere,” said Spaulding. “Governors and legislators end up sort of focusing on crisis areas, whether it’s an opiate addiction problem, or social services, or the need for more child care or child protection workers. College education didn’t rise to one of those crises that they often end up funding, so for whatever reason it’s been a slow process of disinvestment.”

This is an especially alarming trend, considering Vermont Statute 2171 under Title 16 says the following about state funding of the VSC: “The educational system of the State of Vermont a public corporation to be known as “Vermont State Colleges”… The Corporation shall plan, supervise, administer, and operate facilities for education at the postsecondary level supported in whole or in substantial part with State funds.”

The Vermont State Colleges currently receive 16 percent of its revenues from the state, while state funding actually covers 14.5 percent of VSC operating costs.

As a result of the constant decrease in funding, the Vermont State Colleges have been continuously cutting spending in an effort to run more efficiently.

“The Board of Trustees has six strategic priorities that are intended to address the challenging world we find ourselves in,” said Spaulding. “One is to operate a more efficient system.”

According to Spaulding, one effect of this has been to “consolidate business functions of the college.” An example of this would be having one department to pay the bills for all of the Vermont State Colleges.

Spaulding added that other direct impacts of the lack of funding include: deferred maintenance; changing staff retirement benefits; cutting back on both college employees and educational supplies; and, obviously, increases in tuition. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, lack of funding has caused schools across the country to cut student services as well.

The first four of the other six strategic priorities, according to Spaulding, have to do with “working with partners to get more students to go on to college from high school. Vermont has a situation where we have a very lackluster college-going rate. The percentage of high school graduates going on to college in Vermont is the lowest in New England.”

This trend is significant, considering Vermont has the second highest rate of high school graduation in New England. According to the Common Data Project, Vermont is slightly behind New Hampshire at 87.8 percent.

When Vermont students do choose to attend college, the majority elect to go out of state. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, Vermont ranks 8th in the country for the highest percentage of students going to school out-of-state. This percentage is over 53 percent.

The second strategic priority is to improve retention rates on campuses.

The VSC is working to make programs more accessible to adults online. According to Spaulding, online enrollment has gone up four percent from last year.

“Too many times I see Vermonters going somewhere else and paying more because they want to see part of the world,” said Spaulding, “But they don’t recognize that, at a place like Johnson State College, we have the National Student Exchange Program, where you can spend a year at one of 200 other colleges or universities at in-state tuition.”

Spaulding also mentioned the numerous travel programs that the Vermont State Colleges offer, both through classes and other programs.

In an interview with the Vermont State Employees Association, Vermont Governor Phil Scott said that he wants to work to make higher education more affordable for Vermonters.

“We need to look at ways we can expand dual enrollment, further tie state college programs directly to job-training, apprenticeships, and further investments in our workforce,” said Scott.

The VSC’s connection to the Vermont workforce is obvious. According to the University of Pennsylvania GSE’s Institute for Research on Higher Education, 65 percent of jobs in Vermont will require a “postsecondary credential” by the year 2020.

“I think a lot of people don’t recognize how much we’re already doing in that regard,” said Spaulding. “Dual-enrollment is increasing on its own as more people get used to it. I saw that Johnson now has dual-enrollment programs available online so students can take them from anywhere… as far as internships go, we do a lot and we should be expanding that. And we will be.”

On Jan 24, Scott proposed a state budget that would give a $4 million increase in base funding to the Vermont State College system, in return asking the VSC to “use this additional funding to support my strategic goals.” However, this budget will still need to be approved in the Vermont House and Senate.
“The Vermont State Colleges enroll more Vermonters than all other colleges and universities in this state combined,” said Spaulding. “We are the access point for many Vermonters that otherwise probably wouldn’t be going on to college. So we are the linchpin for upward mobility, we are critical to the state’s workforce development needs, and I think it is apparent that our message is starting to get out because the Legislature and the new governor are recognizing the importance that comes from the Vermont State Colleges, and seem to be… recognizing that we’re doing our share and that they need to do theirs as well.”

Ed Note: This is part one of a six part series on VSC funding.