For state colleges, a ‘measured but change-oriented approach’
Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, standings in front of a whiteboard in his Montpelier office that lists strategic priorities for the current fiscal year.

For state colleges, a ‘measured but change-oriented approach’

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding confronts shrinking enrollments, higher expenses with fresh plans for meeting the needs of a declining and changing student body. But first, consolidation.

First of all, his name's not really “Jeb.”

George B. “Jeb” Spaulding is 65, but looks 45. He's originally from Massachusetts, but at an early age his heart adopted Vermont.

Since then, he has built an impressive resume in state government without ever seeking the limelight. It seems as if we've known him forever without knowing him at all.

Spaulding has led a remarkable life under the radar. With a degree in communications from the University of Vermont, he co-founded Montpelier's WNCS-FM in 1976 and rode the growing wave of FM radio's popularity in the 1970s and 1980s before selling the station.

He was an eight-term state senator who served as chair of the powerful appropriations committee. He's a former four-term state treasurer who left the state with the highest bond rating in the country. He was former Gov. Peter Shumlin's secretary of administration.

And since 2015, he has served as chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS), reshaping state schools at a perilous and challenging time for higher education.

The VSCS consists of Castleton University, Lyndon State College, and Johnson State College (now combined, as of July 1, into a brand-new entity called Northern Vermont University), Vermont Technical College, and Community College of Vermont.

All together, Spaulding sits on top of a yearly budget of $170 million and has charge of 2,000 full- and part-time employees - “Roughly, about a thousand of each, I think,” he said. Together the schools serve approximately 12,000 students.

Vermont is near the bottom of the list when comes to state support of higher education. Spaulding is determined to reverse this statistic; he is passionate about his job and the state-college system.

“I totally drank the Kool-Aid, as you can tell,” he said. “I knew what the big challenges were when I took this job. I really did look under the hood.”

Small schools, big problems

To put it bluntly, this is a terrible time for colleges and universities - apart from the first-tier, exclusive, heavily funded elite ones like Yale, Harvard, Williams, Bennington, Middlebury, and the like. For everyone else, tuitions are sky-high, student populations are dwindling, and competition for the remaining ones is fierce. Online universities and state colleges are duking it out in national television advertisements.

“The Vermont State College system was sailing directly into the eye of the storm faced by small public college systems nationally, and especially in New England,” said Churchill Hindes, the president of the VSCS board of trustees, describing the situation when Spaulding arrived.

“You have a shrinking, aging enrollment pool,” he continued. “You have tight state budgets, fierce competition by peer entities, and everyone trying to devise the quintessential new mousetrap that would bring their college stability and sustainability.”

“Jeb's measured but change-oriented approach was just what the doctor ordered,” Hindes said.

Hindes said that Spaulding's apparent disadvantage of not coming from “within the academy” proved quickly to be a much-needed qualification.

He said that Spaulding brought a “fresh appraisal of issues, obstacles, and opportunities coupled to a cool, level-headed decision-making style and an uncanny ability to quickly forge constructive working relationships. He was also willing to acknowledge what he didn't know or understand and patiently listened until he understood.”

Education as a key to success in life

Jeb Spaulding passionately believes in the importance of the state-college system, calling it “the linchpin for upward mobility for a decent life.”

“I'll give you two examples that illustrate the power of Vermont State Colleges,” he said. “For one, there's a guy named Jay Fayette who is president and chief operating officer of PC Construction, which is the outgrowth of Pizzagalli Construction. It's the largest construction company in Vermont, and it does business all over the East Coast.

“Jay tells the story of how he was second from the bottom in his high school. He didn't think he was going to be able to go to college. So he was working in construction and getting laid off every winter the way people do, and eventually he figured out that he needed to go to college. And he ended up at Vermont Tech.

“It took him a year of taking non-credit-bearing courses to be able to start to get great credit, but he did it. And you know there's no way that he could have been able to go to college anywhere else.”

The second example he gave involved David Silverman, president of Union Bank, which operates in northern Vermont and northeast New Hampshire.

“I don't know where he went to college the first time, but it didn't work out,” Spaulding said. “He eventually got into Johnson State, and now he's a bank president. I doubt he would have been going to college anywhere else. We have [Selectboard members] who went to one of our schools. If you're going to get a blood test or a colonoscopy, the nurse or phlebotomist is usually from one of our colleges. We're all over the place.”

Spaulding said the colleges in the system “confer more associate's and bachelor's degrees to Vermonters than all of the other colleges and universities combined” - 60 percent, to be precise.

Even more telling, Spaulding said that close to half of the VSCS students are the first in their respective families to go to college. And they are often of very limited financial means.

“Some of them didn't succeed in K-12,” he said. “Many of them have children, or come from families that are struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. And we take most of them. We sometimes have to say, 'Okay, you've got a little work to do before you can come here.' But if it wasn't for one of the Vermont state colleges, they would not have the opportunity to go to a post-secondary education.”

Spaulding likes to point out that people with a college degree earn more money. They vote more often. They have longer lives. They get in trouble with the law with less frequency.

“And if you don't go to college, the odds that your children are going to go to college are a lot less,” Spaulding said. “We are critical to Vermont's economic future.”

Consolidation for survival

Consolidation is a big part of Spaulding's strategy. On July 1, Lyndon State and Johnson State were officially blended into Northern Vermont University.

It was a brutal decision.

“Regarding Lyndon and Johnson being unified into Northern Vermont University, that concept was developed in concert with our Long Range Planning Committee about a year after I joined the VSCS,” Spaulding said. “I do think it is accurate to say that the unification concept and adoption was driven by the chancellor.”

“Once the decision was unanimously approved by the board of trustees, the leadership for unification appropriately shifted to President Elaine Collins.

“When we made the decision to unify, we announced concurrently that Elaine would be president of Lyndon State College and Johnson State College in the transition and president of Northern Vermont University post-transition.

“That was a smart move. Of course, if unification resulted from the chancellor's leadership, then if unification turns out to be a bust, which I don't believe will be the case, the chancellor will have to take responsibility for that, too.”

So far, the plan has had some success.

“The first year, we saved over $1 million in administrative costs,” Spaulding said. “That's money that can be put into the student experience. We have faculty working together. The business programs are already merged, so students have access to more professors than they did otherwise.

“The travel programs are more robust, as they've got more students that can fill them in and allow them to run. People might call unification a merger, but that would have made it a lot tougher.

“Somebody in the banking industry said to me, 'Those bank presidents that had the foresight and the fortitude to make decisions soon enough are the ones that are still here and growing. And the ones that didn't aren't here.'”

The VSCS has to be willing to change, Spaulding said.

“In Vermont, roughly 40 percent of the students who are graduating from high school have no plans for any post-secondary education,” Spaulding said. “One of our strategies is to work with partners like the Vermont Student Assistance Program to get more students to go on to college. If they do, they'll come to us.

“And we have to really beef up our retention. Retention is the quickest way to improve your bottom line. It's not to bring in new customers, but to keep our existing customers. And we've got work to do there.”

Spaulding believes that publicity will help the VSCS expand its customer base.

“If our traditional customer base is getting smaller, we need to look at a non-traditional customer base,” Spaulding said. “That means adults and Vermonters who are not looking for a full degree. They might be needing more short-form and flexible work and meaningful credentials.”

Getting stronger, but with some pain

Consolidating Lyndon and Johnson was a huge and painful task.

“The point of unifying was to make sure that we're spending as little on administrative costs - as little on things that don't matter to students - as we could,” Spaulding said. “And then put those limited funds back into improving the student experience.”

“We had to lay some people off,” he said. “That's really not a pleasant thing to do.”

More consolidation is coming.

“That's a big priority,” he said. “We're working hard to consolidate business functions and shared services. Right now, for example, we're working pretty hard at consolidation of payroll.”

“We have only 12,000 students total. So how many payroll directors do you really need for that?

“And some people think that we're getting tough. But I say, 'Look, if we want to thrive in the future, if we want to add employees, then we also have to be able to cut certain areas right now. If we can actually save money on business functions, we can put it back in developing new certificate programs or new majors. And we can promote those. That's all to the good.”

Declining state support prompts search for new funding

In addition to seeking new revenue streams from grantors and philanthropic funders, Spaulding is also looking to secure more money from the state. But after 30 years of declining funding and the current tight state financial situation, that won't be easy.

“We're going to work real hard at it,” Spaulding said. “But I'm not banking on [the state] for the future.”

Keeping the system going requires, among other things, a certain amount of political skill. After all, the state keeps cutting its funding.

“In the 1980s we got roughly 50 percent of our revenues from state appropriation,” Spaulding said. “It's now down to 15 or 16 percent.”

The VSCS might now have the dubious distinction of getting one of the lowest amounts of state support in the country. But Spaulding points out it is still funded to the tune of $29 million a year.

“We should be getting a lot more,” Spaulding said. “But you would have to have a pretty big endowment to throw off $29 million every year.”

No matter how dire the situation, don't expect the state to “ride to the rescue,” Spaulding said.

“Yes, part of our strategy is to get additional revenue out of the state,” he said. “But you know, around this country, higher education is receiving less funding. And I cannot in good conscience pin the hopes for the future of the Vermont State College System on changing that. We're going to need their help but we have to do it ourselves.”

In the meantime, low state funding means high tuition.

“We have some of the highest public tuition in the country,” Spaulding said. “It's getting to be more and more common that we will hear from Vermonters who would like to go to one of their state colleges but are going out of state, even to independent colleges, because it's cheaper. That's wrong. That's counterproductive on every front. But that's one of the realities we face.”

The state colleges are economic drivers for their areas, Spaulding pointed out.

“Where would Johnson and Lyndonville be without Lyndon State and Johnson State?” Spaulding asked. “Now we have the Northern Vermont University. Or where would Rutland be without Castleton? Where would Newport be without a Community College of Vermont located there?

“So we're not only critical for the larger state economy for helping to bend the curve of social services by providing people with post-secondary education, but we provide individual Vermonters with opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have. And we're the economic and social hub for a lot of rural parts of the state.”

Around for the long run

Declining birth rates now mean fewer college students down the road, Spaulding said. And the demographics are going to get worse.

“A lot of prognosticators are thinking that a lot of colleges are going to close in the coming years,” Spaulding said. “And some experts think that's starting to happen now. But we're not going to be one of them, by the way. None of our schools are going to close.

“I would say to people, 'Look, you know, I can't tell you whether Community College of Vermont is going to continue to have 12 locations. It may have 10 locations, or 15. But the Community College of Vermont is not going anywhere.

“Castleton isn't going anywhere. Northern Vermont University may have three campuses or two or maybe they'll just have one.

“But Northern Vermont University will survive. So will Vermont Tech. Our mission is to make them thrive, not just survive.”

Some colleges are discounting their tuition in order to attract students.

“The average discount in independent colleges is about 50 percent,” Spaulding said. “How long they can stay in business, I don't know. Part of my strategy is going to be outlasting them.”

Competition is incredibly intense. One state over, the State University of New York offers close to free tuition for residents.

Despite all the challenges he faces as chancellor, Spaulding is reliably upbeat.

“We're not crumbling,” he said. “We're experiencing the same challenges that the other colleges and universities are. But I'm totally confident in our future.”

“The only thing that would really threaten our future would be if we just try to wait it out, or wait for the state to save us. Or wait for the world to get back to normal,” Spaulding said.

“We're not going to do that,” he said. “We're around for the long run. We have to be.”

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