Higher ed investment critical for Vermont's future

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Like every state government, Vermont does some things well, and can stand to improve in some areas.
And then there's the Green Mountain State's chronic underfunding of its state college system — its most short-sighted and least defensible public policy.

Aside from the University of Vermont, the state has four state colleges: Castleton University; Northern Vermont University (formed by the mergers of Lyndon State and Johnson State colleges) Vermont Technical College, and Community College of Vermont.

Most states in the region, on average, provide about 30 percent of their state colleges' budgets. Vermont contributes an underwhelming 17 percent, meaning that the campuses must charge higher tuition to meet their program costs.

That decision has serious consequences, and not just for the young adults who face the choice between going into thousands of dollars of debt or not pursuing college or job training at all.

Only two out of every five Vermont high school graduates attend college — and that percentage drops to one in three among students from low-income families. Enrollment at the state colleges is down by 2,000 students from 2010 levels.

So is it any surprise Vermont has a critical shortage of trained workers ready to fill existing jobs?
You get what you pay for. And if you invest next to nothing in growing the next generation of workers and citizens, that's what you get back.

In December, the state college presidents called upon the Scott administration and the Legislature to commit an additional $25 million over five years, to the tune of $5 million extra per year. That would raise the state's budgetary commitment to its state colleges to a reasonable benchmark of 30 percent, and allow the colleges to make degree programs and technical training more affordable.

Scott's budget proposes an additional $3 million to the state college system, which would allow the schools to forego a planned 3 percent tuition increase.

But those aren't the only plans on the table. State Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, has introduced S. 38, a bill proposing to cover four years of tuition at the Vermont State Colleges for in-state students.

Already, it's facing opposition: VTDigger.org reported that Senate Education committee chair Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, told committee members Thursday that leadership could be interested in a downsized version of Pollina's proposal.

But here's the problem with Scott's approach and with Legislative leadership pondering a more limited alternative to Pollina's plan: They're timid, piecemeal solutions to significant problems that demand bold, decisive action.

If the state is going to tackle workforce development and reverse the demographic trends that are hindering economic growth, it can't nickel and dime its way to success. Maybe Vermont can get away with spending $3 million per year to market tourism, its single largest economic engine, but it can't create the trade workers and leaders of tomorrow without making a significant investment in education and training.

We're not alone in that assessment. Consider this statement from Cathy Tempesta, the vice president of human resources for GW Plastics in Bethel, from an op-ed which recently ran in the Brattleboro Reformer:
"It is good public policy to make college affordable to Vermont students. For companies like ours, it can make the difference between growing in Vermont or growing in another location with a larger pool of qualified candidates," Tempesta wrote.

"As a small state, Vermont faces a number of challenges, some of which are largely out of the control of decision makers. College affordability is not one of those challenges. It can and must be a critical piece in the state's economic development strategy. As lawmakers return to Montpelier for the 2019 session, they should prioritize adequate funding for the Vermont State College System."

Pollina's tuition proposal and the state college presidents' request for $25 million over five years are a good place to start. Both ought to be approved.


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