Opinion: Public higher education for the public good

This commentary is by Linda Olson, a professor at Castleton University and vice president for higher education of AFT Vermont. It was published in VTDigger.

I have been a faculty member at Castleton University and union officer for close to 30 years. During that time, I have witnessed a troubling legislative disinvestment in public higher education at the Vermont State Colleges System and the University of Vermont.

These public institutions are economic engines for the state and local communities. Recovery from the pandemic requires a significant investment in affordable public higher education. While we appreciate the temporary assistance provided by the Legislature during the Covid pandemic, meaningful and consistent support must continue.

I see four central ideas that will enable public higher education to help the state recover from the pandemic and thrive in the future.

  1. Adequately funding public higher education in the future.

The Legislature has supported public higher education in a much more meaningful way during the Covid pandemic, but, at least for the state colleges system, we had to come to a point of crisis before this was done. The responses by the communities that house a state colleges campus that were on the chopping block in April 2020 shows the value of these institutions. That value extends to the entire state. Not properly funding public higher education, as has happened in Vermont since the 1980s, harms the state.

  1. Providing an affordable option for our students.

The lack of state support means our institutions rely on tuition for their survival. Vermont has the second-highest tuition in the country, meaning there is no affordable option for our low-income or even middle-income students. Students graduate with crippling student loan debt, or they drop out with no degree because of the costs.

While our high school graduation rates are among the highest in the country, 40% of our students do not go on to postsecondary education. There has been discussion about the changing demographics in Vermont and that we have fewer young people now than in the past. This rhetoric has justified cuts in staff and faculty at the public institutions.

But what if we could make college so affordable that the 40% who don’t go on after high school could afford to do so, or those who put off earning a degree or certificate could afford to go back to school? Investing in public higher education is investing in Vermont. Those who go to school here stay here to work, pay taxes, buy homes, and raise their families.

  1. Expanding the definition of “workforce development.”

Discussion about the need for workforce development has dominated during the pandemic, but attention has been focused on professions such as building contractors, manufacturers and businesses.

We need to expand training and education for these professions. The well-being of the state depends on this. But the future of the state also depends crucially on professions such as educators, nurses, social workers, mental health providers, public health workers, environmental scientists, and green entrepreneurs. We should emphasize these professions in workforce development as well.

At Castleton University, we recently launched a Center for Social Justice and Trauma Informed Care with a conference for social service providers, educators, and those who work in criminal justice. The message from these professionals is clear: The workload burden they have is untenable and is stressing them to the breaking point.

Expanding these professions is as critical as having more building contractors, but this is often overlooked in the dominant rhetoric, which often provides a false dichotomy between “training” and “educating.” This dichotomy overlooks the fact that all professions require both and assumes that “training” is more cost-effective than “educating.”

  1. Shared governance on the board of trustees.

This would mean that all voices are at the table. Instead of relying on expensive outside experts, adding faculty, staff and more students to the state colleges and UVM boards would ensure that those who have expertise in higher education and understand the day-to-day operations of the institutions would be part of the conversation.

This is a fiscally responsible thing to do, it enhances the ability for the board to make informed decisions, and costs nothing to implement.

The argument against having faculty and staff on the board is often that it represents a conflict of interest, that these individuals are unable to look past their own interests as workers. I would counter that argument by saying that having only administrators report to the board represents a much more significant conflict of interest. After all, their jobs depend on presenting a rosy image of the institutions to the boards.

This also means that a top-down governing model becomes the norm and administrative positions are somehow more vital to the institutions than staff or faculty positions. This explains why cuts in jobs often turn to faculty and staff positions first, while increases in the number of centralized administrators have been occurring simultaneously.

In Vermont, there needs to be a transformation in public higher education. With support from the state, shared governance on the boards, and affordability for our students, we can achieve this transformation.