BRATTLEBORO—“We want to provide more Vermonters with a college education,” Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding said after a Nov. 20 breakfast meeting with school councilors and staff from Brattleboro, Springfield, Bellows Falls, and southern New Hampshire schools.
VSC is contributing to the training of a vibrant workforce that can participate in its local economy and job market, he said.
But Spaulding stressed that more importantly, college transforms lives.
“A college education is the pivot point” for Vermonters to increase their economic and societal prospects, he said. Or, he added, a college education narrows the income and opportunity gap.
“We are mission critical for the state of Vermont,” he said.
She expressed to Spaulding that she is happy at Johnson State — but she told him that no school counselor had actually suggested she consider one of the Vermont State Colleges.
The chancellor said that too many Vermonters don’t recognize the opportunities of attending Johnson State or one of the other four colleges — Community College of Vermont (CCV), Castleton University, Lyndon State, and Vermont Technical College — within the Vermont State Colleges system.
Each school has its own strength, like Lyndon State College, which is consistently rated in the top 10 schools for broadcast journalism, Spaulding said.
Similarly, Johnson State offers strong science and mathematics degrees, he said.
In Brattleboro, students can move on to Vermont Tech’s nursing program after meeting their prerequisites through CCV.
Traditionally, the Brattleboro location has attracted older and nontraditional students, he said. The schools, now located in the Brooks House, are seeing increases in the number of college-aged students.
CCV and VTech in Brattleboro also offer programs to help prepare students for the local workforce, such as a program to prepare people to work at G.S. Precision, he said.
The highest cost in New England
All the colleges are active in their regional economies, said Spaulding, whose breakfast meeting was the sixth such meeting he has attended, he said.
In Spaulding’s view, a college education is the “single-most powerful” tool to increase Vermonters’ quality of life.
According to Spaulding, per capita, Vermont has the highest number of post-secondary educational institutions nationwide. Community College of Vermont enrolls more Vermonters than the private universities or colleges in the state.
But the VSC also has the second highest in-state tuition in the country, Spaulding countered. Sometimes, it is thousands of dollars cheaper for students to attend college outside Vermont, he said.
The high in-state tuition is one reason Vermonters choose to study out of state, said Spaulding, who pointed to the lack of state support for rising tuition.
The VSC system, which in the 1980s derived approximately half its funding from the state, now receives 17 percent of its funding from the state and can’t count on additional funding, he said.
In the upcoming legislative session, Spaulding said, the VSC will push for additional state funding. Yet the school system does not plan to rely on receiving it.
Regarding state support of higher education in New England, Vermont and New Hampshire’s state colleges and universities receive the least amount of funding.
“We’re in the basement of our own league,” he said.
In addition to the funding and tuition challenges, Spaulding noted that Vermont has a high rate of high school graduation, yet a low rate of students continuing to college.
“We should be proud of our high school graduation rate,” Spaulding said.
He said that Vermont students regularly test well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which tracks how students are progressing in different subjects.
That achievement tells Spaulding that Vermont students are academically ready — and that it’s the transition to college that’s “lackluster.”
Overcoming sticker shock
As the demographics statewide shift toward an aging population, fewer high school students seek college educations in general, Spaulding noted, adding that some families are not convinced that the benefits of college outweigh costs.
Yet Spaulding also sees these conditions as an opportunity.
Don’t get spooked by sticker shock, Spaulding advised potential students. VSC schools provide financial aid to 85 percent of their students.
The VSC operates as a network of connected entities. While each school has its own identity and course offerings, students enrolled at one state college can take classes at the other state schools.
“You are admitted to one but go to five [colleges],” Spaulding said.
“We really are the pivot point,” Spaulding continued.
The chancellor has had conversations with employers who won’t consider an applicant without at least a bachelor of arts degree.
According to Spaulding, in recent decades, college attendance has increased for people in the upper income brackets. College attendance among people in the low- and moderate income brackets, however, has stagnated.
A college education, whether it’s a professional credential program or a four-year degree, improves the odds for job seekers, he added.
Along with job skills, college students acquire a number of the “soft skills” needed to manage life, such as working in groups, navigating roommate situations, dealing with adversity, meeting deadlines, or managing a budget.
The former secretary of administration in the Shumlin administration, Spaulding, who assumed his position in January, said the state government has done many things right for the state colleges, such as authorizing dual enrollment and early college programs for high school students.
Dual enrollment allows high school juniors and seniors to take two college courses tuition-free at the five state colleges. Early college allows high school seniors to combine their senior year with the equivalent of the first year of college.
Both of these programs are paid for through the education fund.
With these two programs, students can save 25 percent on their college education, said Spaulding, who said that higher education is more critical than people realize and that the state should view it with the same importance as it does kindergarten to 12th grade.
“We are the extension of the public education system,” he said.