MONTPELIER — The Vermont State Colleges System’s (VSCS) Board of Trustees met virtually on Saturday to accept $12 million more in federal funding through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education as part of the ongoing national response to the Coronavirus to aid higher education institutions across the nation.
Trustees met briefly for a Finance and Facilities committee meeting prior to the full Board meeting, and reviewed and approved the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund grants unanimously after a brief presentation.
The funds are aimed at offsetting lost revenues associated with the public health crisis, including being able to provide financial aid grants to students for a range of needs including tuition, food, housing and more.
Trustees were told by VSCS’s chief financial officer that there are no downsides to accepting the federal dollars.
The $12 million in funds have been approved for the Vermont state colleges through the U.S. Department of Education and are making available emergency funding to post-secondary educational institutions with student aid and institutional components, according to Saturday’s information issued by Sharron R. Scott, the state colleges’ system’s chief financial and operating officer.
According to documents for Saturday’s VSCS meeting, “Each institution within the Vermont State Colleges System will be awarded Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds II,” through a program created as part of the federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplementation Appropriations Act.
“A designated portion of the funds must be used for student aid, and the remainder may be used for institutional needs,” according to the meeting information.
The federal act was approved Dec. 27, 2020, and included $23 billion for higher education institutions and students, as part of the federal response to the pandemic.
According to the materials made public as part of Saturday’s meeting, the institutions of the VSCS may award student grants using the funding for student grants to cover any component of their cost of attendance, emergency costs that have arisen due to the Coronavirus including: tuition, food, housing, health care (including mental health) and child care.
Institutional funds may be used to help defray expenses associated with the Coronavirus pandemic including: lost revenue, reimbursement for expenses already incurred, technology costs associated with a transition to distance education, faculty and staff training, payroll, and support activities related to the Coronavirus.
The Department of Education awards to the VSCS will be distribute across the state college system as follows: Castleton will see $2,195,923 in institutional funding with $878,417 in student funding; Vermont Technical College will receive $1,327,806 in institutional funding and $485,703 in student funding; the Community College of Vermont will receive $3,826,354 in institutional funding and $740,325 in student funding; and Northern Vermont University will receive $2,564,011 in institutional funding and $966,171 in student funding, the highest share for student funding for the anticipated federal grant support.
Those individual institution-by-institution breakdowns total $9,914,094 for funding across the campuses of the VSCS for institutional funding and $2,104,445 for student funding system-wide, the information for the Saturday finance and facilities committee meeting of the Board lays out.
Optimism After Fiscal Crisis
The VSCS has been struggling in recent years due to a low level of state funding for the system, coupled with demographic challenges and spun into crisis a year ago when the onset of the global pandemic forced the shuttering of dorms and schools to pivot online.
A major overhaul of the VSCS is underway in the wake of a special legislative committee’s study and recommendations, which are now in motion to transform the system, steps which call for Northern Vermont University (NVU), with campuses in Lyndon Center and Johnson, to merge under one umbrella institution of residential campuses with Castleton University and the Vermont Technical College.
Under the proposal, the only institution under the VSCS to remain separate from that planned unification into a single-accredited system is the Community College of Vermont.
That process is expected to take a little more than two years, and a decision was recently made to stick to that timeline and not try to accelerate it by a year.
The VSCS Board will be involved in many decisions as the administration navigates the complex merger, and choosing a president to oversee the expanded university, as well as a name for the merged institution will be among those decisions, noted VSCS Chancellor Sophie Zdatny during Saturday’s meeting.
During Saturday’s meeting, Zdatny said the VSCS has seen a remarkable level of support so far during the Legislative session.
The VSCS issued a news release about the budget advancing in the Legislature with unprecedented support for the state colleges.
“The House is recommending a record and unprecedented $97 million investment in the Vermont State Colleges … we hoped this was coming, but it is officially here,” noted Zdatny, saying the investment represents a combination of state and federal funds, including a $5 million permanent increase to the base funding of $30.5 million, “this is a step in the right direction that we’re very encouraged by.” The funding also includes $21 million in bridge funding, $20 million in transformation funding and more.
Critical Occupations Project
Zdatny said the proposal pre-funds four years of the anticipated costs of the transformation process includes $20.5 million in student stipends and scholarships aimed at helping with affordability for students. Funding for the Critical Occupations Project proposed by the VSCS has been approved by the House Commerce Committee and is included in the budget bill, according to information shared Saturday.
Zdatny noted, too, a spreadsheet included with the meeting materials ” … showing the $20.5 million on Critical Occupations Projects the VSCS proposed, which was approved by House Commerce and included in the budget bill.”
“The House will vote on the budget by the end of the week, after which the budget will move to the Senate,” Zdatny noted. She told trustees that there is language included by the House Appropriations Committee “which is intended to hold the VSCS accountable and ensure that the VSCS executes on its transformation plans and strategic priorities.”
Funding to provide free tuition for critical occupation majors and plans for new student grants proposed for that funding include Welcome Home scholarships for transfer students and those who left school in 2020-21, as well as degree completion programs for adult learners with more than 40 credits, graduate and undergraduate internship stipends in critical occupations, and scholarships critical majors including training for licensed practical nursing to meet shortages in long-term care facilities.
Trustees were given a presentation in detail about the programs aimed at helping people complete degrees and more to help respond to workforce needs in Vermont.
Trustee Bill Lippert said the programs stand to change the lives of many Vermonters, “We desperately need additional health care workforce … We were very excited to support even before this all cascaded to where we are now … we should position ourselves to be an essential and key trainer” for health care professions in Vermont. He expressed gratitude to the Congressional delegation for securing so much federal funding for Vermont, including for higher education, “Our federal delegation has played a very important role, as well.”
VSCS Board Chair State Rep. Lynn Dickinson said many of the programs that will be boosted are aimed at non-traditional adult students, people who do not go on to college, and people who face barriers in trying to get further education after high school, “That’s what these programs are designed to attract, to work with. The internship scholarships are primarily aimed at adults who have to work.”
“They have barriers that need to be addressed so they can actually afford to continue their education,” said Dickinson.
Of the workforce supports coming forward to increase credentials and degrees for Vermonters, Dickinson said, “It’s exactly what we need.”
State Rep. Jim Masland, of Thetford, a member of the VSCS Board of Trustees said,“Really, we’re talking about educating Vermonters for the next several generations, and for me, that’s the bottom line.”
Zdatny reviewed the legislative requirements tied to the unprecedented funding levels.
The budget now advancing will be considered for final legislative approval in May and will then go to Gov. Phil Scott.
The forecast for Fiscal Year 2022 is a $32 million deficit, the board was told on Saturday, with the worst likely deficit being $44.6 million, with the COVID deficit and structural deficits making up the shortfall.
“Transforming the Vermont State Colleges System will take both time and money,” shared VSCS CFO Scott, saying a total of $81 million in funding is needed for Fiscal Year 2022.
She noted, “The total budgeted appropriation is $97 million … we are extremely grateful and humbled by the outpouring of support we have seen by the Legislature and the Governor throughout this process.”
“If approved, this funding comes with significant expectations … we must transform to meet the needs of Vermonters and our region. We must become more efficient and fiscally sustainable,” said Scott, “We are grateful for the very strong expression of support by the House and we look forward to the future.”
Trustee Karen Luneau noted that positive transformational steps have often come from difficult times, “Lots of things that many of us had dreamed about happening at VSC are now possible to be done.”
“I don’t think the requirements (of the Legislature) are onerous, I think they are responsible and necessary and good and as a citizen of the state, I am pleased by those requirements,” said Luneau.
“I’ve met with the workforce development team from across the system … I’ve made clear to them that they should start planning for some of these now,” said Zdatny. “We don’t want to wait until the very end, and some of these are going to have shorter lead times.”
Trustee David Silverman echoed that he believes the requirements of the Legislature are reasonable, but he said one point he is concerned about is the requirement that the VSCS structural debt be reduced by $5 million a year, saying revenue is difficult to predict. “That will not be achieved without effort and pain, and we need to be cognizant of that going into this; this is not going to be an easy thing.”
Zdatny said the Select Committee made that recommendation, along with the need for the State of Vermont to boost its annual level of s support for the state colleges system.
“We’ve been trying to be clear with the Legislature that it’s taken us decades to get into the situation we’re in,” said Zdatny.
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