Commentary, Opinion

Bold actions needed to restructure Vermont State Colleges

By Bob Allen, former president of Green Mountain College, Poultney

The Select Committee and the Vermont Legislature have a difficult task ahead. Covid-19 exacerbated and accelerated a problem that has existed in higher education for at least a decade or more. I will argue the business model for most public and private colleges and universities is broken and needs immediate change.

I had the honor of leading Green Mountain College as its president from 2016 until its closure in the summer of 2019. Prior to my leadership position at GMC, I spent five years as the president and CEO of the nonprofit Windham Foundation based in Grafton; however, most of my professional life was spent in the for-profit sector. I spent 25 years in a succession of senior leadership positions at The Vermont Country Store, ending as president and CEO. Most of my ideas come from the perspective of operating a Vermont business that received no public support. Success was entirely dependent on living within the constraints of the operating revenue.

I have read the 77-page report submitted to the Legislature on the restructure of the Vermont State Colleges System and have concerns that the recommendations do not go far enough and will ultimately result in an increasing dependency on public funds (taxpayer dollars) to offset deficits that will grow over time. I am also concerned that the suggested timeframe for changes to the system of five years is too long.

My tenure at GMC, though only three years, was the greatest learning experience of a long career. I had to learn quickly. I was assured by the former president that I had a balanced budget for the academic year 2016-2017. I discovered almost immediately that it was based on unrealistic projections for enrollment, the tuition discount rate and contributions to the annual fund. I estimated during the summer of 2016 that the college would likely run a $2 million-$3 million deficit and it proved to be accurate.

I began in the fall of 2016 to make changes that would reduce expenses and increase enrollment. Simultaneously, I began to pursue three possible options.

1. Merge GMC with another Vt. public or private college

2. Restructure the college to operate within realistic enrollment and revenue projections

3. Closure. Unfortunately, there was not enough time or money for #1 or #2, closure became the only option.

Even though GMC was small and private, some of the lessons learned, I believe, should be considered in the restructure of VSCS.

Consider enrollment

I would budget for flat or declining enrollment for at least the next three years. The fact is that higher education in Vermont and the entire country, particularly in the liberal arts, has a problem of oversupply. There are more institutions, more beds and more classrooms in Vermont than the current demand — 85% percent of VSC students are Vermonters and that will not likely change in the near term. Vermont has had a declining birthrate for many years and recently the lowest number of births in more than 100 years. Attracting out-of-state students to Vermont, other than the University of Vermont, has proven to be a challenge. Increasingly students are looking to pursue higher education in cities and states with larger and more diverse populations. Changes in the types of programs and majors offered could reverse the trend, but that will take years to achieve.

Consider restructuring the curriculum

Follow the example of UVM and consider eliminating programs that do not generate enough student interest. I do not know if UVM chose the right programs, and the announcement and timing was not handled well, but in the end colleges can no longer afford to support all programs regardless of the cost. Add or expand programs that have direct connections to the needs of employers in Vermont and New England.

Consider merging institutions

I recognize the report makes several recommendations, but does it go far enough? In a meeting with Gov. Phil Scott to discuss the possible merger of GMC with Castleton University, I suggested to the governor and his chief of staff that the merger of Lyndon and Johnson did not go far enough., e.g., they continued to operate intercollegiate athletic programs in both locations at great expense. Consolidating athletics at one institution would have saved millions of dollars and would not have resulted in fewer new student applications or adversely affect retention of existing students. Some of the money saved could have been reallocated to intramural programs. In creating NVU, did the chancellor consider eliminating intercollegiate athletics entirely and should VSCS not consider this now?

Consider closing one or more of the VSC campuses

This was recommended by the former chancellor, but ultimately rejected due to the public outcry; however, consolidating operations and eliminating some operational costs on the individual campuses may not result in enough savings to cover the projected deficits in the near or long term. One or more campuses may need to close.

Consider a centralized office

Evaluate the cost and effectiveness of the chancellor’s office. The last time I checked the office had approximately 36 staff and a budget of $8 million. Is there an effective way to evaluate the contributions made by this structure? One of the options considered should be the elimination of all or part of this office. A cursory review would suggest that there is a duplication of positions on the individual campuses and in the chancellor’s office. Another approach would be to eliminate all campus-level positions whose responsibilities could be best handled consolidated in one office. A final decision should be delayed until a thorough evaluation is completed.

Increase teaching, class size, financial aid

Move to a year-round calendar and at the same time consider increasing the faculty teaching load. At GMC faculty taught either six or seven classes per year on a two-semester system. As we considered the restructured reality at GMC, the conclusion was that faculty would need to teach five classes per term, or a total of 10 classes per year to achieve financial sustainability.

Increase the average class size. Again at GMC, to achieve a break-even operating budget, it was determined that all faculty would be required to teach classes with an average size of 20 students. The college could no longer afford to support classes and majors or minors that did not attract enough students to meet the minimum.

Evaluate the role of the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. in providing greater financial assistance to students attending either UVM or one of the VSCS schools. A 1979 report suggested several alternatives to the current system: 1. Transfer the entire allocation for UVM and VSCS to VSAC and constrain VSAC to providing grants only to designated Vermont institutions, or 2. Eliminate VSAC and reallocate its funds directly to VSCS and UVM. Other options may need to be considered.

Clearly several of the recommendations above will likely receive strong pushback and outright condemnations by the faculty, staff, students and perhaps to a lesser degree the citizens of Vermont.  But I believe we need to reduce the projected time to achieve operational sustainability from five years to three. I would argue that taking decisive and aggressive actions now will enable VSC to achieve its goals in a shorter amount of time and, thus, reduce the commitment by the Legislature to cover the ongoing deficit.

Recently, I read a column by Bill Schubart, who is one of Vermont’s greatest champions and also a strong advocate for change. He is often spot-on in his assessment of how Vermont has been slow to respond to the need for change. He said: “We are a studious lot, but less adept at making change than studying it. We spend time and ink recording what needs change, but lack the political courage to drive those changes through the headwinds of the opposition rallied by those whose privilege is threatened.”

I rarely quote others, but I strongly recommend the committee consider bold action to save and strengthen the Vermont State Colleges. Now is the time for decisive action.

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