As a 47-year resident of the Northeast Kingdom, I have watched with great interest the statewide conversations around the future of the Vermont State Colleges System (VSCS), and Northern Vermont University (NVU) in particular. While the Kingdom has faced its share of challenges over the years, it remains a region of the state bursting with promise. Driven by the success of our creative economy, our diverse outdoor recreation and our growing and entrepreneurial food sector, we see bright economic indicators throughout our region. NVU has played a critical role in this success. As policymakers craft the state’s budget over the next several weeks and allocate the federal funding coming to Vermont as a result of the pandemic, I hope they keep the value of our state colleges not just in the forefront of their minds but also in their actions.
NVU is a major economic and cultural driver in Vermont’s northern region. In fact, NVU’s total economic impact in northern Vermont is conservatively estimated at more than $100 million annually. NVU students and graduates are trained for Vermont’s job market – ski area managers, mental health professionals, teachers, business owners and meteorologists, are just some examples. Additionally, NVU brings 18,000 people to our region every year. These students, graduates, faculty, staff and family members boost our local economy every single day by skiing and riding at our local mountains and Nordic trails, biking at Kingdom Trails, buying from our local stores, eating at our area restaurants and more.
Furthermore, NVU provides vital access for Vermont students who might not otherwise attend college. The vast majority of NVU students are Vermonters and more than half are first in their family to attend college. The hard reality is, without our state college system and without NVU, many Vermonters and many Kingdom kids would never receive a college education. The value of this cannot be understated.
NVU’s impact on our local communities and employers will likely increase in the coming years as it implements its Learning and Working Community. Under this initiative, NVU will collaborate with community employers to formalize hands-on learning opportunities for its students. The Learning and Working Community will directly connect students and faculty with those in the workforce to create dynamic learning opportunities for students and provide future trained employees for our employers.
NVU and the other state colleges have been working diligently over the past year in concert with lawmakers, members of the Scott administration, business and community leaders, and others, to develop a plan that will significantly restructure the VSCS by creating a system that is both more efficient and less costly and most importantly, sustainable. This plan will be considered by the VSCS board later this month and calls for substantial changes. The most significant of these is combining NVU, Vermont Technical College and Castleton University into a single, accredited university. While this may seem a drastic action, it is the only way to put VSCS on a sustainable path and it is also the only one that will allow NVU — indeed, allow all the VSC institutions — to continue to play its vital role in, and serve, our community.
The hard work and the hard decisions being undertaken to restructure our state college system need to be matched by a strong and unwavering commitment by state government to provide the funding needed to ensure sustainability. The state’s paltry level of financial commitment to VSCS has not kept pace with the value our state college system provides. Vermont allocates fewer public dollars to its state college system than any other state in the nation.
Bold and concerted action is needed both from within VSCS and from our leaders if we are to ensure a bright future for our students and our communities.
Jake Wheeler practices law in St. Johnsbury, is a former Vermont Community Foundation Board chairman and the current Kingdom Trail Association Board vice chairman.