‘A pivotal moment’ for Vermont Tech, state colleges

Report recommends merging Williston college with state universities

BY JASON STARR, Observer Staff

Despite steady enrollment growth and expanded programs, the Williston campus of Vermont Technical College is entangled in the Vermont State College System’s financial struggles. A legislative report released Friday suggests the college merge with Northern Vermont and Castleton universities to create a single institution as a key to sustaining the system.

“We don’t keep a separate budget for Williston,” said Vermont Technical College President Pat Moulton. “It’s all one Vermont Tech budget and ultimately, it’s all one Vermont State Colleges budget. So we’re all in this boat together.”

The state college system needs a one-time infusion of $45 million in the upcoming fiscal year to stay afloat, according to the report, in addition to its typical annual appropriation of $30 million — which covers just 17 percent of the system’s costs, Moulton said.

The report was commissioned last year after the now-former chancellor recommended the outright closure of Northern Vermont University and the Randolph campus of Vermont Tech to address a roughly $25 million structural deficit. After that plan was rejected, the Legislature convened a committee and consultant to study ways to sustain the system and continue to meet the post-high school education needs of Vermont residents.

Moulton said the report’s conclusion that all four state colleges remain open is encouraging, but more investigation is needed about the three-way merger. The report suggests a second option of just merging Castleton and Northern Vermont universities, while keeping Vermont Tech and Community College of Vermont (CCV) separate institutions. The idea of merging Vermont Tech and CCV has also been discussed, Moulton said.

“There’s a lot in (the report) that makes a ton of sense,” she said. “The emphasis on serving students is spot on, so there’s a lot in the report to like. But there are other things that just raise questions. 

“The burden is on us to figure out what we can implement and will it in fact move the needle.” 

Merging the three colleges — the report suggests the new name “Vermont State University” — would mean a single administrative team, unified business model, less competition for students and shared debt burden. It would allow students to take courses at different campuses without the need to submit a new college application. 

“A major reason for unifying institutions is to reduce costs through greater efficiency that leads to improved affordability for students,” the report states. 

The legislative committee is tasked with continuing to refine the recommendations through 2021. Then it will be up to lawmakers and college leaders to implement it. 

“How will (the Legislature) act on this report? Will it be like many other reports in my history in state government that go sit on a shelf and nothing ever happens, or will it be something that they embrace parts of and move forward?” Moulton said. 

Vermont Tech was already working on its own transformation before the legislative committee was convened. The school has two campuses — in Williston and Randolph — and was simultaneously working to expand capacity in Williston and shed unneeded resources in Randolph. Plans to acquire more land around the intersection of routes 2 and 2A, where the Williston campus is located, have been put on hold, according to Moulton. 

The campus is working to continue to attract not only traditional college-age students, but older adults who are retraining for new careers. 

“There’s growing demand for the programs we have in Williston, which is a great thing,” Moulton said. “We’ve seen some pretty steady (enrollment) growth.” 

The report shows that Vermont Tech spends about $31,000 annually per student, compared to about $24,000 for similar colleges nationwide. Moulton said there may be lessons Vermont Tech can use in those findings. 

“I want to ask, ‘how are they able to deliver this education so inexpensively?,’” she said. “We might take a page from some of those peer institutions, so I’m anxious to know more about them.” 

With continued additional state funding in the ballpark of $40 million, the state college system can eliminate its $25 million deficit over a five-year period, the report shows. 

“This is a pivotal moment for the Vermont State College System. The (report) has provided a clear roadmap to address the urgent needs of the Vermont State Colleges for now and into the future,” Board of Trustees Chair Lynn Dickinson said.