$3 Million budget increase passes House, stalls in Senate

After years of fighting for additional state funding, a substantial budget increase to the Vermont State College System (VSCS) seemed likely after the House passed a $3 million increase, only to be rejected by the Senate Appropriations committee on Friday, May 3.

The committee reduced the increase to $2.5 million.

Assuming the Senate as a whole approves the amended increase the bill would go next to a conference committee to reconcile the half-million-dollar discrepancy between the House and Senate versions.

The fate of the increase is expected to be known by the end of May.

“I am disappointed by the recommendation of the Senate Appropriations Committee,” said Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding. “That said, I am thankful that committee acknowledged the need for increased state support and realize their recommendation still represents a 9 percent increase over this year’s appropriation.

Spaulding said he still hopes for the $3 million increase once the competing versions are reconciled in committee. “We will keep making the case that very little state support means very high tuitions and an affordability problem for our students,” he said. The House increase came with the stipulation that the VSCS freeze tuition for a year.

A $25 million budget increase was originally proposed by Spaulding in December, 2018. The proposal’s objective is to (eventually) raise state support for higher education to the New England average by increasing the VSCS budget by $5 million for five years. The average level of public funding for colleges and universities in New England is 31.5 percent.

In the early 1980’s, 50 percent of the Vermont State Colleges budget came from the Legislature. Today, the VSCS only receives 17 percent from the Legislature, relying on tuition for the rest.

Consequently, Vermonters have the highest tuition for public four-year higher education in the United States. “Too many Vermonters are scared of going to college because of its high cost.” said Spaulding. “Half of our students are the first of their family to go to college. They don’t know what to do and they need our support.”

Spaulding believes that this support consists of more than just academic tutoring or wellness services. He believes supporting Vermont students includes ensuring that their school debt is manageable.

In underpopulated regions like Vermont, he says it’s vital that major workforce pipelines are funded. The VSCS is currently the biggest producer of full-time workers in the state. In fact, more Vermonters attend one of Vermont’s public colleges than the rest of its private institutions combined. By increasing the VSCS’s annual budget, more students will be able to afford school, as well as become more likely to join the state’s workforce. According to Spaulding, this would in turn, “ensure the economic stability of the state.”

Whatever increase ends up being allocated would be spread across all four of the Vermont State Colleges (Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College).

“I’m very proud of the education we provide at VSCS.” said Spaulding. “However, I’d be lying if I said we don’t receive very little state support. We’d like to be able to afford and provide more to our students.”

Some increase to VSCS budget is now likely, but even if the House version prevails, it is certain to fall far short of Spaulding’s proposal. “Keep in mind, what we were hoping for when the Legislature convened was a multi-year commitment to increase our level of State support to the average level for the other public four and two year colleges in New England.So, even a $3 million increase, though appreciated, would not move the dial as much as needed,” he said.