Garimella: The University of - and for - Vermont

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In my extensive travels across the state, I've learned a lot from Vermonters. Most I have spoken with look at the changes UVM has undergone in the last 15 years — from state-of-the-art new buildings that have transformed our campus to research that has improved the lives of Vermonters, to rising academic quality and robust enrollment — and see a vibrant institution on an upward trajectory that is good for the state.

But some see these gains differently; as coming at the expense of Vermont and Vermonters. In their view, the university, in pursuit of the out-of-state tuition revenue necessary to fund its advance, is turning its back on Vermont and Vermonters.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

First, some baseline figures:

- Half of Vermont's high school seniors pursue a college education;

- Two-thirds of that group—about 2000 students—apply to UVM;

- UVM admits 68 percent of those applicants;

- 44 percent of in-state students at UVM attend tuition-free.

It is true that Vermonters make up only about 20 percent of UVM's incoming class (a number that increases to 27 percent for the total undergraduate population, thanks to Vermonters who transfer back to UVM). But the factors that explain that 20 percent figure are easy to understand:

- Vermont's small population, the second lowest in the nation;

- The limited number of high school graduates resulting from that small population;

- The low percentage of Vermonters who go on to college, close to last in the nation;

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- The attraction that going beyond the state's borders for college holds for some of our young people.

Imagine if the percentages were flipped and Vermont students made up 80 percent of the first-year class. This would translate to a much smaller undergraduate student population of about 2,740, rather than the 10,700 students we have currently. And that scale would not support a complex and comprehensive university with medical, engineering, education, nursing, agriculture/extension, business, natural resources and liberal arts academic units, which the state has come to count on with well-founded pride.

Far from disadvantaging Vermonters, UVM's out-of-state students make it possible — given Vermont's small population and low level of state support for higher education — for Vermonters to attend in their home state an intellectually stimulating, multi-faceted research university like those that students from far more populous states, which fund higher education at far higher rates, enjoy.

It's also important to note that 31 percent of out-of-state students remain in Vermont after graduation. This represents a much-needed "brain gain" and is something we're working to increase even further by engaging with employers in the creation of meaningful internships (for in-state and out-of-state students) that pave the way to long-term job opportunities. This benefits the student, the employer, and the state.

We're also doubling down on the innovative research that attracts national and international attention to Vermont. For its size, UVM does well in procuring federal funding. This past year we brought $144 million dollars to Vermont to support research important for our state and the country as a whole. This is a foundation we will continue to build upon. But we also are working to augment this by expanding our industry-university partnerships, supporting iconic companies like Ben and Jerry's, Biotek and Global Foundries, and attracting increased engagement from parent companies like Agilent and Unilever. Not only do these endeavors attract a skilled workforce, which adds to the tax base, but they often lead to infrastructure enhancements such as increased broadband access.

And while it's true that somewhat fewer Vermonters attend UVM today than in the past, that lower number is demographically driven. Vermont has experienced among the sharpest declines in high school graduates in the country. As a result, even though the percentage of Vermont high school students who attend UVM has remained constant over the last 10 years, their actual number has declined.

In recent years we have put more, not less, emphasis on recruiting Vermont students. In addition to visiting over 70 high schools in the state, the UVM admissions team works closely with college counselors and individually with Vermont students to emphasize the many opportunities UVM presents — in and out of the classroom.

Our emphasis on bringing Vermonters to UVM extends to financial support as well. Three years ago, we launched our Catamount Commitment, which not only covers full tuition and fees for low-income Vermonters, who make up about one-third of UVM's in-state enrollment, but also provides academic and personal support for them once they're at the university. This is how we ensure that a UVM education is financially accessible to Vermonters.

We're also making it easier for Vermonters who aren't able to attend UVM directly out of high school to earn their bachelor's degree at the university. Already 60 to 70 Vermont students transfer to UVM each year from the Community College of Vermont. To increase that number, we're in the process of working with CCV to create seamless pathways for students to transfer to UVM, while providing financial support for them to do so.

Once they arrive at UVM, Vermont students are successful by any measure. Many take leadership roles on campus. Seventy-four percent graduate in four years. And a full 69 percent stay in Vermont after graduation to join its workforce.

It's no wonder we want Vermonters at the University of Vermont. And we will continue to work hard to recruit as many as we can. It's good for us, good for the state, and honors the land-grant mission we hold so dear.

Suresh V. Garimella is the president of the University of Vermont.


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