VSCS gets first significant funding increase since 2008

After years of low state fiscal support, the Vermont State College System (VSCS) received a $3 million boost to its ongoing base appropriation among other initiatives following the passing of its balanced fiscal year budget for 2018 (FY2018).

The hike garnered wide support in the Vermont Legislature and went into effect July 1, 2017, after the VSCS Board of Trustees approved the budget.

Gov. Phil Scott was an early proponent of boosting the systems’ appropriations, a view shared by legislators and college officials alike.

The five VSCS colleges — JSC, LSC, Castleton University, the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College — will split the $3 million (12 percent) increase to their base, which mostly covers operating expenses.

The increases will also include $880,000 to support the current unification of JSC and LSC, increased from $770,000 from last year’s budget, figures Senator Rich Westman (R-Lamoille) and Representative Kathleen Keenan (D-St. Albans) say derive from one-time funds.

“That [$880,000] pays for things like marketing and the branding,” said JSC and LSC President Elaine Collins, who says the boost in base appropriation aims to stabilize tuition and student costs at both colleges while maintaining programs worthwhile to students. “If you look at the appropriations issue, the college has not seen an increase in appropriations since 2008.”

The increases are supported by over $4.6 million in savings in consolidating the colleges’ administrations into Northern Vermont University (NVU); major debt refinancing and restructuring; and savings from spending reductions and benefit changes, a task lawmakers and college officials are calling “creating efficiencies.”

Meanwhile, VSCS Chancellor Jeb Spaulding says that both the University of Vermont and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) were level-funded for FY2018.

According to 2016 data from the Vermont House Appropriations Committee’s FY2018 Budget Request, 84 percent of VSCS students are Vermonters and 65 percent of Vermonters enrolled in college are in the VSCS.

However, state funding for the VSCS has fallen precipitously from 51 percent in 1980 to 16 percent today.

Tuition and fees, meanwhile, account for approximately 84 percent of its revenue, a figure that American Federation of Teachers of Vermont (AFT/Vermont) President Deb Snell called a betrayal of the state’s 1961 pledge to support the VSCS “in whole or substantial part.”

As a result, the State Higher Education Executive Officers association (SHEEO), a national advocacy group that prioritizes the access to and completion of higher education, ranks Vermont next to last in state higher education funding within its 2015 and 2016 reports.

In January 2017, Representative Matt Hill (D-Lamoille) introduced House Bill 122 (H.122), which asked for $4 million for the VSCS’ annual base appropriation to be included in FY2018.

Hill, a JSC graduate, says VSCS operations shouldn’t rely primarily on tuition as private systems do. “Even though we’re a public institution, a lot of kids are having to pay the whole load by themselves and I don’t think that’s very fair,” he said.

“If we’re going to have a public system, a state college system, it shouldn’t look like a private college,” Hill said. “It’s [mostly] tuition-based even though the state college system’s a public-school system. That’s widely unfair, in my opinion.”

In addition to low state funding, both Hill and Westman attribute the VSCS’ financial troubles to several factors: a decline in the birthrate since the mid-1990s, an ageing Vermont population with priorities other than funding higher education, and tuition rates that surpass the rate of inflation.

“With declining K-12 populations across this state, the most important thing is to fill seats within,” Westman said. “If you can’t fill the seats, and we keep having declining enrollments, we can’t keep the schools going.”

The decline in birthrate over the past 20-plus years is an issue Vermont Representative Bernie Juskiewicz (R-Lamoille) says is a “gap” that the appropriation boost aims to close by increasing revenues through increases in enrollment.

“If I look at Vermont itself, Vermont has one of the highest [high school] graduation rates in the country,” said Juskiewicz, a member of the House Appropriations Committee and former vice chair of the House Education Committee. “But if you look at the continuation rate, only 60 percent [of high school graduates] go on to any form of [higher] education. What are we doing about that and what is the state college doing about that?”

Questions about whether the appropriations will be successful, Juskiewicz says, will need to be answered over the next two to three years.

To do this, Juskiewicz inserted legislation into the budget that will revisit “key indicators” of performance, like enrollment data, to determine future appropriations.

One of Hill’s and Juskiewicz’ colleagues who supported H.122, Representative Dan Noyes (D-Lamoille), says supporting JSC and LSC is vital to fostering an educated workforce and more prosperous local community.

“If you look at the economic drivers of the universities and of the colleges, think of the number of jobs and what that brings into Lamoille County,” said Noyes.

One of the consequences of not funding the VSCS — particularly JSC and LSC — was closing an institution down. Noyes, Hill and Westman say this was not the fate they wanted for their alma mater.

“It’s a huge part of our economy and the largest employer in Johnson — one of the largest in Lamoille County,” Noyes said. “It’s important to our community to have this campus here; higher education is way to make sure people that grew up here have access to good employment. Also, it’s a way to bring people into the state.”

Keeping JSC and LSC economically viable, however, comes with its share of handwringing in the legislature.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations committee, Westman says moving the money from the general fund to the education fund — which affected K-12 teachers’ retirement — presented a particular challenge.

Part of that challenge of funding higher education, he acknowledges, comes with competing with other state needs, such as health care, for money.

“It’s an uphill fight to convince people that any new money shouldn’t go to Medicaid, it should go to higher education and childcare — that’s an uphill fight,” Westman said.

Also a VSAC counselor, Westman points to college savings programs like the Vermont Higher Education Investment Plan, a 529 plan, as a method of paying for college with income tax benefits for parents, grandparents and guardians when state funding is low and tuition rates account for the majority of college revenues.

Initiatives such as Westman’s, Noyes’ and Hill’s have been recognized by Vice Chair of the VSCS Board of Trustees Tim Jerman as a good omen of the future health of Vermont’s colleges and universities. “There’s a bipartisanship within the state colleges that I think is unique and wonderful, that it’s not political at all,” said Jerman. “We have democrats, republicans and progressives all pushing towards the same goal of making this state a better place for making education affordable and accessible.”

After what he calls a successful group effort this year, Spaulding says Jerman and the VSCS Board of Trustees are in ongoing discussions about what their system needs to persist for its next chapter. That chapter includes the launch of Northern Vermont University.

“We explained why we needed $4 million,” said Spaulding. “We understood that [the legislature] tried to get it to us and could only get us $3 million, but we want the other million and then we need inflationary adjustments. We think that’s a fairly modest ask — it’s realistic.”