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Three Vermont Schools Merge to Stay Afloat During Pandemic

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Three schools of the Vermont State College System (VSCS) are set to be consolidated to form one “Vermont State University,” according to a proposal put forward by the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees.

VSCS trustees will meet today to make a final decision about the college consolidation plan first proposed last year after COVID impacted the financial position of state academic institutions.

If approved, three of the system’s four-year schools including Northern Vermont University, Castleton University, and Vermont Technical College will merge into one single institution. The Community College of Vermont will remain a standalone institution.

VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny believes the plan will be more student-focused and will serve the state better. “It will get us to a place where we’re on a sounder financial footing,” she told Valley News.

Reasons Behind Merger

The state’s colleges have been plagued by steadily declining enrollment and funding problems for years. The pandemic has only further exposed the teetering system, exacerbating problems that were already present.

In December, a special committee tasked with outlining Vermont State College’s needs proposed the consolidation of the system’s four colleges into one institution — similar to a failed attempt by former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding in April 2020 to save the colleges from insolvency.

The committee’s report also proposed doubling state investment in the system. However, it did not suggest shutting down campuses but rather urged colleges to take immediate action to save the state’s public schools. 

For decades now, Vermont has ranked low for how much it funds its public higher education institutions. With the state’s long-ailing school budgets stretched thin due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone — including state leaders — is now demanding more funding to support its schools.

Even Governor Phil Scott has addressed the plight of Vermont’s public schools in his budget address and promised that the system would undergo a major overhaul to get back on to a more sustainable path.

Student Reactions

The plan has been debated and heavily criticized by students and faculty at the three institutions, albeit for different reasons. They believe the proposal is inadequate to tackle the cost of attendance at these schools.

In fact, Zdatny herself stated that consolidating the three schools would save about $5 million each year for the next five years. Many students and faculty members think that the College of Vermont should also be included in the merger, thereby eliminating the chancellor’s office altogether to save additional money.

Even if the plan receives a go-ahead by trustees, it will ultimately have to be approved by the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accreditation body, a process that could take upwards of two years, Zdatny said.

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