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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Can consolidation save Vermont’s public four-year schools?

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College students arriving on the previous campuses of Northern Vermont College, Castleton College and Vermont Technical School for the beginning of lessons final week had been greeted with banners, T-shirts and pennants bearing a special title: Vermont State College, accompanied by the slogan “We Are One.”

It was additionally the primary day of lessons for the newly unified VTSU, a consolidation of three four-year establishments within the Vermont State Faculties System that was formally born this summer time after two-plus years of planning. System leaders hope the daring transformation will increase quickly declining enrollment, whittle down a $25 million deficit and stave off faculty closures that only a few years in the past appeared inevitable.

However VTSU’s inaugural class is just not an image of swift restoration: new pupil enrollments are down by 15 % this yr throughout all three campuses, and total enrollment dropped by 6 %.

Mike Smith, VTSU’s interim president since April, stated the enrollment drop is according to the college’s projections. The merger was an experiment, he stated, and officers anticipate it to take some time for the outcomes to turn out to be clear. However he was assured that with time, the gambit would repay—not solely in financial savings however in renewed curiosity from Vermont college-goers. He additionally stated he was aiming to scale back the systemwide deficit to $11 million in two years, and that he and his management workforce had been planning to launch a strategic plan in November—the primary within the system’s historical past.

“It is a transition yr … We budgeted for a dip, and we appear to be proper on the cash,” he stated. “I anticipate us to start out climbing out of this gap in earnest subsequent yr.”

It’s an optimistic prediction for VTSU, now the one four-year establishment within the Vermont State Faculties System. The college is inheriting the daunting obstacles that confronted its part campuses, chief amongst them a steep, years-long enrollment decline introduced on by demographic shifts and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. VTSU leaders are additionally contending with the difficulties of working in rural areas with declining populations, in addition to the brand new problem of managing three separate establishments—comprising 5 campuses—strewn over 100 miles as a single establishment.

“It makes for lots of driving,” Smith stated.

Robert Zemsky, founding director of the Institute for Analysis on Larger Schooling on the College of Pennsylvania, stated mergers in public methods don’t sometimes handle the core issues that struggling establishments face. He fears that consolidation efforts like VSU’s are misguided makes an attempt to protect campuses that, ultimately, could also be sliding inevitably towards closure.

“Squeezing down ain’t the reply … the underside line is, there are not any easy solutions,” he stated. “A few of these schools are simply going to have to shut, and attempting to carry on to locations the place college students aren’t prone to go isn’t going to result in something fascinating. Any individual ought to be taught to say that out loud.”

Ricardo Azziz, director of the Heart for Larger Schooling Mergers and Acquisitions, stated mergers could be an efficient and obligatory tactic for public schools in a bind, however he cautioned that consolidation is one device amongst many for sustainable restructuring—not a panacea in itself.

“The influence on enrollment is just not straightforward to foretell; typically, it may possibly drop quickly, and in at this time’s difficult surroundings it doesn’t shock me that Vermont’s enrollment is down as a complete,” he stated. “However that doesn’t imply the merger was a nasty concept. Mergers will not be essentially options for enrollment challenges; their actual energy is in sustainability and within the re-energizing of the establishment.”

A Messy Merger

Azziz, who can be a principal on the Strategic Partnerships in Larger Schooling consulting group, led the merger that resulted in Augusta College, previously generally known as Georgia Regents College, in 2012, and was the establishment’s founding president. He stated there are seven elements within the early days of a merger that can pave the best way for its success, crucial of that are “management, disciplined execution and communication.”

VTSU’s path has been marred by pace bumps in all three areas.

First, there was the proposal that began all of it in April 2020—from then Vermont State Faculties system chancellor Jeb Spaulding—recommending that the three financially challenged campuses be shuttered or vastly decreased because the pandemic dealt what appeared like a deadly strike. Blowback to that suggestion finally led to Spaulding’s resignation; a report launched later that yr really useful that the universities ought to be mixed below one accreditor and management workforce, with elevated funding.

Then this spring, Parwinder Grewal, VTSU’s first president, who had overseen many of the consolidation course of, resigned abruptly following controversy over his proposal to transform the college’s libraries into “all-digital” collections and take away sports activities groups at Northern Vermont’s Johnson campus from the NCAA. He served for barely over a yr.

“This doesn’t essentially bode poorly for VSU, but it surely does imply that present management actually must have an operational imaginative and prescient,” Azziz stated.

Two students in baseball caps and hoodies walk side by side down an outdoor path wearing Vermont State U–branded drawstring bags.

College students on the former Vermont Technical School, now VSU’s Randolph campus, put on drawstring baggage with the brand new VSU emblem on the primary day of lessons.

Rob Franklin/Vermont State College

Smith stated he understands the significance of steering the battered ship on a gradual course, and he hopes that the official opening of the college places the “distractions” of Grewal’s rocky tenure firmly prior to now.

“We’re going to must do lots of exhausting work as we transfer ahead,” he stated. “However I actually consider that if we do that work, and we comply with a path that we’ve laid out, we could be profitable right here.”

Consolidation Over Closure

Mergers between public establishments are nonetheless pretty uncommon. They extra sometimes happen within the realm of personal schools, often when a bigger establishment swallows up a struggling smaller one—Northeastern College’s subsumption of Mills School, as an example.

Probably the most apt comparability to VTSU is the Pennsylvania State System of Larger Schooling, which merged six campuses into two new establishments final summer time after years of double-digit enrollment declines and monetary issues. Although Pennsylvania’s inhabitants is far bigger than Vermont’s, the Keystone State has a comparable demographic drawback, affected by a major outmigration of scholars and falling delivery charges.

PASSHE’s consolidation gamble additionally failed to provide clear enrollment ends in its first yr. However Bashar Hanna, president of Commonwealth College, one of many two consolidated PASSHE establishments, stated the tide is beginning to flip. This fall, in welcoming its second class, the college noticed a ten % soar in first-time enrollment and an almost 25 % enhance in graduate pupil enrollment.

“The demographics are actually stacked in opposition to rural public universities … however investing in native college students has paid off,” Hanna stated. “One yr doesn’t a development make, however we’re very excited.”

Hanna believes that consolidations like PASSHE’s are set to turn out to be a development amongst foundering public establishments. In contrast to many non-public schools, regional public universities are sometimes very important to their areas, Hanna stated, and conserving them open ought to be a precedence.

“We’ve barely hit the tip of the iceberg with consolidations and partnerships, I believe,” he stated. “I can’t see us with the ability to keep away from it.”

For Smith, VTSU was a approach to fulfill the universities’ obligations to serve the residents of Vermont’s often-overlooked rural areas that host them with out forcing them to compete with each other.

“We needed to cease cannibalizing one another,” Smith stated. “Eventually, we had been going to select one another off.”

(This story has been up to date to right the abbreviation of Vermont State College to VTSU.)

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