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We need to preserve state colleges, not rashly shut them

Vermont’s public higher education system has survived by pandering to well-off out-of-state students. We must rethink funding of higher education — but in the meantime, threats of closing campuses put essential infrastructure at risk.

Byron Stookey, a retired educator, works to improve the community, particularly on issues having to do with affordable housing.

Brattleboro

The proposal to shrink the state college system seems sudden. But in fact, it continues a process begun in the 1970s, when land grant and other public colleges and universities began charging substantial tuition. And, from the 1979-80 recession, tuitions increased steadily as states reduced support for higher education.

Until then, states adhered to the spirit of the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act of 1862, offering higher education affordable to “the sons of toil.”

No longer. In 2019, state funds underwrote just 6.2 percent of the costs of Vermont’s “public” university. And the state colleges and community colleges are similarly strapped.

The university has managed by pandering to well-off out-of-state students. “Merit” scholarships exclusively for out-of-state students are used to attract classy applicants — no aid application needed. (Presidential Scholarships pay such students $17,000 to 20,000 a year for four years.

Those prize students improve UVM’s position in the U.S. News & World Report ratings, so they help attract other out-of-staters able to pay full out-of-state tuition (see table). And a costly and exclusive honors college helps the sell.

So the space available for Vermont students, and the aid available to help them attend, both are severely reduced. The university stays somewhat solvent. But the sons — and daughters — of toil get short shrift.

A mix of out-of-state students — including international students — is good for local students’ education. But not when it drains the scholarships they need and usurps their place in school. In-state students now comprise only 16 percent of undergraduates at UVM.

The state colleges, too, have become less available and affordable — long before the new cutback proposal. Just tuition and fees, without room and board, are out of reach for people who are poor. Here too, out-of-state student enrollment has risen. And merit scholarships take money from applicants who need help.

Only the 12 community colleges seem to be serving their purpose with some steadiness and at relatively reasonable cost. But they, too, are struggling financially.

And, everywhere, the quality of education is endangered by growing reliance on adjunct faculty, hired temporarily without job security or benefits — again, necessitated by inadequate funding.

* * *

These problems are obviously not just Vermont’s. We may be faltering especially. But public higher education is hurting in almost every state.

There’s no reason why this country, when we get back on our feet, can’t afford free public college education. But until then, we need to preserve what we’ve got, not rashly shutter colleges. If we’ve meanwhile abandoned educational infrastructure, it will be like trying to rebuild the railroads when the railbeds were gone.

And in any case, we need to rethink, if we hope to keep our young here and build a durable Vermont economy.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #559 (Wednesday, April 29, 2020). This story appeared on page B2.

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