In the last school year, fewer than a quarter of University of Vermont undergraduates were Vermonters,
out-of-state enrollments have soared, what does that say about the university’s role in the state?
By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger
Erik Arnold, a sophomore from Minneapolis, came to the University of Vermont because, among other reasons, he wanted to get out of the Midwest.
Aurelia Bolton, of the San Francisco Bay Area, visited the northeast as a child and attended summer camp in Vermont. The sophomore chose UVM in part because the area has always felt “like a little home,” she said.
Jillian Griffith, a West Virginia sophomore, came for the multiple engineering offerings and because the campus “had the best feel,” she said.
Arnold, Bolton and Griffith were among dozens of recently returned students lounging on the university’s Redstone Campus on a sunny Monday afternoon. Along with thousands of others, the three are part of a sizable majority on UVM’s campus: out-of-state students.
The University of Vermont, the state’s flagship, land-grant public university, has come to fill an unusual role. It educates relatively few students who actually hail from Vermont. Instead, the institution caters in large part to students from elsewhere.
Over the past two decades, the number of undergraduate Vermonters at UVM has decreased by about 300. Meanwhile, the university’s student body has added roughly 3,800 out-of-state students.
As of the spring of 2023, less than a quarter of the university’s roughly 10,700 undergraduates were Vermonters, the lowest of any spring semester for at least 26 years, according to university data.
What’s more, according to 2021 residency data from the U.S. Dept. of Education, UVM had one of the lowest percentages of new in-state students of any large public university across the country. Only two institutions — both online-only — had lower in-state percentages than UVM.
In a recent press release celebrating the arrival of the class of 2027, UVM noted that new first-years come from 45 states and 23 countries, and half are from outside New England.
That, administrators said, is “an indication of the university’s broadening national and international recognition and appeal.”
But as the university has added out-of-state students, the growth of its undergraduate student body has rankled officials and residents in Burlington, which is in the throes of a serious housing shortage.
And the figures raise thorny questions about the identity and function of Vermont’s largest public university. When fewer than a quarter of its undergrads actually hail from its home state, what is UVM’s mission in Vermont — and is it fulfilling it?
“I don’t think there’s firm agreement on what the function of (UVM) is or should be for the state,” said Kevin Chu, executive director of the Vermont Futures Project, a nonprofit think tank that works to promote economic growth in the state.
By the numbers
UVM was founded in 1791 as a private university, but it acquired “quasi-public” status in 1865, after it merged with the newly created State Agricultural College, according to the university’s website.
The university, Vermont’s second-largest employer, educates roughly 10,700 undergraduates, 1,600 graduate students and 500 medical students, according to university data from the spring semester.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the percentage of undergraduates from Vermont hovered around 40%, university data shows. But that percentage has dwindled over time, and by the 2022-2023 school year, only about 23% of the university’s undergraduates were Vermonters.
UVM reported 8,200 out-of-state undergraduates in spring 2023, compared to roughly 2,500 in-state undergraduates. The number of out-of-state undergrads has risen 98% since the year 2000, while in-state enrollment decreased by 12%.
The increase of out-of-state students at public flagships is a national trend, experts say. But even so, UVM is an outlier.
The most recent data available, from the fall of 2021, shows that only 18% of UVM’s new undergraduates that year hailed from Vermont — lower than nearly every other large public universities throughout the country.
UVM ranked third in the country for the lowest percentage of in-state first-year undergraduates out of large public universities. It had 18% in-state first-years in 2021, compared with a national average of 81%.
This fall, university officials say that about 18% of the incoming class is expected to be from Vermont. That figure is, in fact, an increase from last fall, when 16% of first-year students were Vermonters.
‘Try our damned hardest’
So why don’t more Vermonters attend UVM? The answer is familiar to higher education administrators across Vermont: The state simply does not have enough students.
Over the past decade, the number of students graduating from Vermont high schools has dwindled. In 2012, Vermont produced about 6,900 high school graduates, according to state Agency of Education data. In 2022, it produced only about 5,000.
Meanwhile, usually only about 60% of Vermont high school graduates go on to college, according to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation — a lower percentage than other states, experts say.
Some Vermont high school grads may not want to attend UVM for financial reasons. Rural students may feel uncomfortable in the relatively large city of Burlington. Other Vermonters simply want to leave the state.
“American culture is mobile, and we often think about climbing the success ladder in terms of physically moving from one location to another,” said Cheryl Morse, a professor in UVM’s Department of Geography and Geosciences. “And so individual young people, young Vermonters, may get this narrative that to be ambitious and to achieve their full potential they need to move.”
University administrators have rolled out a slate of initiatives to attract more Vermont high school graduates. Since 2016, Vermont students who are eligible for federal income-based Pell grants have paid no tuition or fees. Starting this fall, Vermont students whose household income is $60,000 or less can attend fully tuition-free and have fees waived. Some scholarships are also available only to Vermonters.
The university accepts about 70% of Vermont applicants and about 60% of out-of-state applicants. Administrators have also frozen tuition, both in-state ($16,280) and out-of-state ($41,280) for the past five years, and room and board fees ($13,354) have been frozen for the past four years.
In all, nearly half of Vermont students attend UVM tuition-free, according to Jay Jacobs, UVM’s vice provost for enrollment management — “not a cheap way to run a business.”
Admissions officers “are continuing to try our damned hardest to recruit Vermonters, in all corners of the state, in all 14 counties,” Jacobs said.
In fact, compared to the declines in the number of high school graduates, the number of undergraduate Vermonters attending UVM has decreased relatively little — reflecting, perhaps, the effort UVM has put in to attract them.
‘What are the needs?’
Often lost in the discussions, said Chu, of the Vermont Futures Project, is a deeper inquiry into what UVM does, and should do, for the state.
“The needs of a state change very much throughout history,” Chu said. “It’s this ever-evolving relationship. So it’s almost imperative for Vermont to define, what are the needs? And then for UVM to evolve to meet those needs.”
Answering those questions, Chu said, could help officials determine the institution’s path forward: How much should it grow? How much should the state spend on it?
Tom Sullivan, a professor of political science and UVM’s president from 2012 to 2019, said the question of in-state vs. out-of-state students “is an important question.”
“We are a state’s public institution,” Sullivan said. “So there are responsibilities, clearly, that UVM has to the state of Vermont. We would like to have, and should try to do everything we can do, to recruit, retain and graduate more Vermont residents, period.”
But, he said, “unintended consequences and demographics hurt that goal.”
The university is one of the few entities that can draw young people into the state in significant numbers — roughly a third of whom, administrators say, stay after graduating.
“There is no other institution or entity in Vermont that is like us in terms of attracting a workforce to the state,” UVM president Suresh Garimella told lawmakers this winter.
The questions go to the core of UVM’s identity and policies. How much effort and money should UVM spend to chase a dwindling number of Vermont high school graduates? And how much should it lean into its function as a magnet for out-of-state students — a way, as it were, to create new Vermonters?
University officials, meanwhile, say the institution is already serving both Vermonters and out-of-staters — goals that, they argued, are not in conflict with one another.