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Amid financial distress, Vermont may shutter three state colleges

A long line of vehicles paraded through downtown Montpelier, Vt., honking, waving and holding signs for more than an hour on April 20 to protest a proposed plan to shutter three campuses in the Vermont state college system because coronavirus.
A long line of vehicles paraded through downtown Montpelier, Vt., honking, waving and holding signs for more than an hour on April 20 to protest a proposed plan to shutter three campuses in the Vermont state college system because coronavirus.Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/The Times Argus via AP

A plan to close three of Vermont’s state college campuses amid the COVID-19 outbreak, drew a sharp rebuke over the weekend from students, faculty, state lawmakers, and business leaders. But on Monday, state college officials said they have been left with few options to salvage a system that is rapidly running out of money.

The state colleges chancellor Jeb Spaulding said the system is likely to lose $10 million by the end of this fiscal year in June and will see its enrollment for the next academic year fall by about 15 percent, triggering further losses of $12 million.

“The entire system is at risk,” Spaulding said during a board of trustees meeting. “In the near future we will be running out of cash. ... What we don’t want to do is lose everything."

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Spaulding presented a plan late Friday to close Northern Vermont University’s Johnson and Lyndon campuses and the Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus. It would leave the state college system with just two residential campuses and eliminate 500 jobs.

The system’s board of trustees was scheduled to vote on proposal on Monday, but after a public backlash it was delayed for another week.

By Monday, more 1,000 emails had flooded the inboxes of the board of trustees protesting the closures. Faculty took votes of no confidence in Spaulding, and state legislators urged caution and suggested that they may be able to provide some financial support. On Monday, dozens of Vermonters participated in the video-conference meeting; many said they were outraged by the proposal and complained about the lack of transparency in making such major cuts.

“It’s our economic engine,” said Eric Osgood, chairman of the Johnson Board of Selectmen. “It’s going to need reform … but it’s worth saving.”

Higher education institutions across the country are facing financial pressures as a result of the coronavirus. Many have lost millions in refunding room and board costs when they went online this spring, and they are uncertain about whether they will be able to reopen as usual in the fall.

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The financial outlook for institutions that were already struggling before coronavirus is even more dire.

In Vermont, a state with an aging population, college enrollment has been falling generally for a decade.

Even before COVID-19 upended the higher education marketplace, several small, private colleges in Vermont had closed. In the past year, Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph have shut down. Last November, Marlboro College announced that it would be absorbed into Boston’s Emerson College at the end of this academic year.

On Monday, Spaulding said some of the state’s public rural colleges are in similar financial circumstances as those small, private institutions.

The system has discussed the need for additional state funding and ways to consolidate the system, including closing some campuses, in the past.

“None of these issues are new,” said Linda Milne, a member of the board of trustees. But now, “we really need to act fast.”

State college officials said that the system needs time to plan for the consolidation in the next few months before the fall semester and give students enough warning if they have to go to another institution.

But students, parents, and faculty said the closings would limit access to a liberal arts education in rural northern Vermont, and it isn’t entirely clear whether all the degree programs could be moved to the remaining residential campuses. Some students may have to go to institutions outside of Vermont or students would have to consider starting their degrees at community colleges, before transferring to the four-year campus.

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“This was a cowardplan,” said Haley Fiaschetti, a parent of a atmospheric sciences major on a campus proposed for closure. “How can you drop a bomb like this and not have all the answers?”

Allison Irons, a senior at NVU Johnson, said she wanted to stay in Vermont after her previous school, Green Mountain College, closed. But now with one semester left before she earns her degree, she could be in for another closure.

“This really tore me down,” Irons said.

Parents and some state lawmakers urged the system to delay a decision for a year so officials could consider other options and ways to more gradually restructure higher education.

System officials on Monday said they would would need an additional $25 million in bridge funding next year, whether or not they close campuses. The system is unlikely to get that money from a bank or private lender without a restructuring plan that closes campuses. If all the campuses remain open, the state legislature will have to provide all $25 million in additional funds, officials said.

Whether Vermont lawmakers could provide the additional funding is unclear. Many states are expecting budget hits due to the coronavirus.



Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.