UVM president Suresh Garimella during Monday's press conference
The University of Vermont plans to freeze tuition and room and board costs at current levels, president Suresh Garimella announced Monday, citing both moral and economic motivations.
Garimella, who has now twice recommended tuition freezes since taking over last year, told reporters that the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare economic challenges facing families and universities alike. The university's board of trustees must approve the tuition freeze in the spring.
"College education is one of the largest expenditures families face," Garimella said. "It is an expenditure that is increasingly important to securing a young person's future success, but one that is becoming out of reach for many families."
With UVM already one of the most expensive public schools in the nation, raising tuition would only make it harder to attract and retain students, especially at a time when "families around the nation are struggling," Garimella said.
"When you consider the financial burdens facing so many of our students, this is the right choice," he said.
The decision will impact all undergraduate and graduate students, including those from out-of-state. According to the university's financial services department, undergraduate tuition for the current year runs $16,392 for Vermonters and $41,280 for those from out-of-state. That total climbs to $29,746 for in-state students and $54,634 for others when including the average room and board cost of $13,354.
Garimella also recommended the postponement of a $140 "recreation and wellness fee" and a yet-to-be-determined reduction of the "comprehensive fee," which was $2,670 this year and funds a variety of student programs and services.
"These moves, on behalf of our students, are an investment in our future — and, if endorsed when the trustees meet in the spring, will mark three consecutive years of tuition being frozen at the same rate," Garimella said.
Garimella also unveiled on Monday a fundraising initiative aimed at drumming up cash for scholarships and graduate fellowships. He said $18 million had already been raised toward the campaign's initial $150 million goal.
"Given the passion of our alumni and the achievements of our students, I am confident we can exceed this amount,” he said.
The announcements come as UVM continues to grapple with financial challenges both old and new. Though the university received millions of dollars in state and federal aid earlier this year, its COVID-related costs have "far exceeded" that support, Garimella said. And the realities of the Northeast's shrinking college-age demographic have only become starker as families reconsider whether pricey four-year colleges are worth the risk at a time when the virus remains prevalent throughout the nation.
UVM adopted a series of austerity measures earlier this year to address unanticipated costs and brace for future ones. Those included the imposition of strict hiring limits and an across-the-board 5 percent wage cut for all non-union employees. But even after those steps, UVM announced last week that it was still facing a $9.4 million budget shortfall this fiscal year.
While raising tuition by 3 percent — the previous average increase — would have pulled in about $7 to $8 million next year, it would have also made it harder to sell UVM to families and could exacerbate enrollment challenges down the road, Garimella said.
"It is not prudent, nor is it practical, to expect students and families to absorb continually rising costs," he said.
Exactly who will absorb the university's rising costs remains of concern to its many employees — both those who have already had their paychecks cut and those in the faculty union now negotiating a new contract.
Julie Roberts, a linguistic professor and president of the union, United Academics, said faculty and staff "of course" support efforts to make the university more affordable.
Yet with contract negotiations now at an impasse, Roberts said, “our question, as it always is, is where is the money coming from?”
Garimella said the university will search for additional revenue through fundraising, private partnerships and research grants. Its successful return to campus this fall — with few coronavirus cases — may also provide an enrollment boon as parents look for safe places to send their kids next fall, he said.
Still, alluding to the contract negotiations, Garimella said he hoped union members would "contribute" to the cause. "I know we all care about our students, and we want our students to have an education that's high quality but also affordable," he said.
As for whether he anticipated any further cuts to staffing or academic programs, Garimella conceded that much remains up in the air.
"It's hard to anticipate how things will be — how the rest of the world will look for next fall," he said. "But we will continue to minimize the impact on our employees."