- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Mike Smith
Registrations for fall classes at the Vermont State Colleges System have dropped 22 percent this year — a steep decline that signals its myriad struggles are keeping students away.
There is still time for the enrollment to climb. But any drop would be a blow to the beleaguered college system. The VSCS already is under orders from the legislature to solve its financial problems, which have required an infusion of $200 million from state coffers since 2021.
"The fall numbers are looking scarily bad. They're low," said Julie Theoret, a math professor at Northern Vermont University-Johnson. "But none of us are surprised, especially on the Johnson campus. We believe that recent decisions in the last several years have not done us any favors."
Registrations and deposits are lower throughout the system, which includes the two colleges that make up Northern Vermont University, plus Vermont Technical College and Castleton University. The colleges will be merged as Vermont State University on July 1. Community College of Vermont will remain independent within the state college system.
Mike Smith, interim president of the future Vermont State University, said he already has budgeted for an enrollment drop of as much as 15 percent. A bigger decline would require the system to dip into its reserves of about $9 million.
Many alumni, students, staff and faculty blame the drop in registrations on publicity about the plan — announced in February but later reversed — to remove books from the college system's libraries and replace them with computer-accessible materials. The board and then-president Parwinder Grewal also announced a plan to move sports at NVU-Johnson to a less prestigious athletic conference and to offer only club sports at Vermont Technical College.
Those cost-cutting plans prompted a loud and prolonged outcry, and Grewal resigned in mid-April. Smith, his replacement, quickly rescinded the library and sports decisions.
But maybe not soon enough. Smith said in an interview on May 16 that the registration figures were lower than he had anticipated.
Many students and parents have been deterred by the drawn-out and at times chaotic attempts to solve the Vermont State Colleges System's financial problems — including a 2020 proposal by then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding to close all campuses except Castleton's. After intense backlash, Spaulding resigned a few months later.
Then, in 2021, the state colleges announced their restructuring into Vermont State University. That revitalization effort has already been marred by Grewal's surprise departure in April after only eight months on the job.
Smith referenced larger forces to explain what he described as a temporary enrollment dip. The system is still struggling in the wake of the pandemic lockdowns, he indicated. Enrollment is declining at many other small colleges and universities, too, the result of a decline in the number of college-age people.
Smith said he's focusing on the future and showing prospective students and employers what they can expect from the new Vermont State University.
"As we pull things together, it'll take a year for us to sort through that brand change and move forward from there," Smith said. He acknowledged that the uproar over the library and athletics announcement also likely played a role in the enrollment drop.
"The turmoil had some impact," he said.
- Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
- Vermont Technical College
Enrollment numbers are a critical piece of the hoped-for recovery of the future Vermont State University system; Grewal said last year that he wanted to increase student numbers by 80 percent. The newly organized university is under orders from the Statehouse to cut its operating budget — this year, $153 million — by $25 million over five years, starting with the current fiscal year, which ends in June.
Tuition revenue is expected to make up about 43 percent of the system's income this year, and the state appropriation will make up about 35 percent — a change from the years before the pandemic, when the system relied on tuition for as much as 70 percent of its income.
Enrollment dropped slightly system-wide between fall 2021 and fall 2022, before the library and athletics decisions were announced. But unless registrations pick up, a much steeper drop is imminent.
The belt-tightening at the state college system, and questions about its future, are nothing new. As early as the 1970s, a study found that state spending on the Vermont State Colleges System had been slipping throughout the decade and recommended an increase. Legislators have since batted the issue around without taking decisive action.
This year, Smith said, the colleges system has saved about $5 million, mainly by finding efficiencies through attrition of staff, paying off a bond that was costing $1 million a year to service, and reexamining some of the campus contracts with goods and service providers.
Smith noted that more painful cuts will be coming. The $5 million in reductions mandated for each of the next four years will represent a growing portion of the system's annual budget.
"I have told people it will get more difficult as we move into those outer years," Smith said, adding that he plans to consolidate programs to create class sizes of about 18. One-third of the classes at Castleton University, he said, have fewer than 10 students.
As for addressing enrollment, administrators do not yet have a plan for getting more students into the system's classrooms, though Smith would like to keep the reduction to 15 percent. Maurice Ouimet, vice president of admissions and enrollment for the soon-to-be established Vermont State University, said his 20-person office has attended 900 student recruitment events since last September — representing a large increase over past efforts by the individual colleges.
Despite the drop in registrations, Ouimet said he thinks the new brand is helping with recruitment and said inquiries have picked up recently. At the Pittsburgh NACAC National College Fair in February, he said, his staffers received triple the usual number of inquiries. He added that it will be helpful that Vermont institutions no longer have to compete with one another for students.
"Having Vermont State University be our name is already giving us some instant credibility," he said. "Each institution had historically tried to be all things to all students. That's just not sustainable. But as one university, each campus can have a niche."
The system lowered tuition 15 percent for the coming school year. In-state tuition will be $10,000 to $25,000 a year, depending on the program, and $10,000 to $15,000 higher than that for out-of-state students. Typically, 83 percent of the state colleges' students are Vermonters.
College employees, alumni and members of the public are openly skeptical that enrollment can increase enough to make up the difference between income and expenses at the system. The demographics of Vermont's aging population are not working in the system's favor, and competition from other online programs is fierce.
"There are lots of people who would say that Jeb Spaulding had it right when he proposed closing the campuses and moving the liberal arts residential college to Castleton," said Rich Clark, a political science professor at Castleton University who is one of those people. "I think we have serious structural problems."
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