The recent and ongoing debate about the fate of our local public colleges is, of course, a debate about many things, primarily public access to and support of higher education and its value to our society. Those advocating for the state colleges also point to their role in their regional and local economies: as a major industry, consumer, and employer. And therein lies the rub.
The Vermont state colleges’ history is, like most things in Vermont, similar to their counterparts in other states and yet unique to Vermont. The colleges evolved from grammar schools to normal schools, around the time of the founding of the land grant institutions. After primary education became mandatory, the schools became teachers’ colleges, to produce a supply of teachers for local schools. And after the GI Bill made higher education more accessible, they became liberal arts colleges.
In the 21st century, as rising costs needed to show a return, the colleges have broadened their curricula to include more professionally oriented, “practical” courses of study. They have embraced workforce development and certification programs designed to lead not necessarily to a college degree but to a better resume and a better chance of employment, and ultimately, to a better skilled and more productive workforce.
The colleges were independent institutions until the Vermont State College System (VSCS) was incorporated in 1961. Since then, campuses have grown as buildings have been built to accommodate actual demands or strategic plans. Staff has grown to tend the buildings, students, and ever-growing bureaucracy of each college and the central office. And, typically and predictably, enrollments have ebbed and flowed cyclically with the state’s demographics and counter-cyclically with its economy.
In the past decade, it has become apparent that the increasing costs of higher education, which grow much faster than the rate of inflation and much faster still than average incomes, have crippled all but the more generously endowed private and public institutions. Private colleges have been closing, and as that rate of closure accelerates, we lament their loss to our society.
But when public institutions are threatened with closure, we stand to lose opportunity itself, for public institutions are the great leveler, the great enabler of economic advancement. Public institutions, with more reasonable costs and more open admissions, allow any of us to try to improve and succeed and in that way, they make credible economic reward and the promise of a better future.
Public institutions of education are also, in our post-manufacturing, creative economy, a major industry. And in this, Vermont and especially the Northeast Kingdom are typical: the biggest employers here are healthcare and education. Entrepreneurial ventures do survive, but mostly at a much smaller scale. There are those who work remotely. There are the small businesses and professionals that provide the services of local life. And there are the smaller cultural organizations that provide the enrichment of local life.
So when a public institution that is also a large employer is threatened with closure, the precarious balance of our already lagging local economy is threatened. There would be the immediate effects: loss of salaries and payment for services such as utilities and supplies, loss of state and local tax revenues, loss of population due to emigration, making it even harder to scale public services, loss of property values and erosion of the tax base. And the ripples would continue to emanate far and for a long time.
Demographic disaster has long been predicted for the state and its colleges, and there are plenty of reasons, both chronic and unique, for this most recent crisis. But it reveals our economic dependence on a relatively few local institutions, which, although public and non-profit, are just as fragile and susceptible to financial failure as any private and profit-seeking business.
Our economy used to be supported and propelled by private and profit-seeking businesses, supplemented and enriched by public institutions. Now we are dependent on our public institutions, not only to provide the education or services that is their original mandate, but to employ us, to be our customers, and one way or another, to pay our bills. And it may just be too much of a burden for them.
Whether or how it makes “sense” to sustain our public institutions will be argued long and hard every time one of them threatens to “fail.” Their merits can and should be weighed, their funding can and should be debated, but unless and until we can meaningfully diversify our economy, their failure is not an option, albeit a very real possibility.