Amid Shifting Landscape, UVM President Calls for Increased State Funding

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University of Vermont President Thomas Sullivan testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

By Kirk Carapezza

University of Vermont President Thomas Sullivan is making the rounds at the Statehouse this week to urge lawmakers to approve $42.5 million in funding for the state’s flagship institution. Sullivan’s final push comes as administrators across the country are considering fundamental changes to the traditional higher education model.

Since taking the helm last year, Sullivan has made affordability his top priority. As well-paid jobs have vanished and the cost of college has soared, social mobility in Vermont and elsewhere is still inextricably linked to access to higher education.

To that end, Sullivan is reassuring lawmakers that half of the state’s 2014 fiscal year contribution would go toward financial aid for Vermont students.

“I see this institution really as a talent magnet and what we’re trying to do – our very best – is to keep that talent in the state for economic development and workforce needs,” Sullivan told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

At a time when many states are slashing their contributions to higher education, Sullivan hopes the Vermont Legislature will continue to buck that trend so UVM can remain competitive and attract top academic talent to its Burlington campus.

“We are very labor intensive and, quite frankly, even though we see lots of news stories about web-based education I think the role that it will play will be a supplementing role,” Sullivan said, admitting that other colleges and universities are increasingly putting courses online and offering them for free. On Wednesday, for example, the California Legislature is expected to take up a bill that would require universities to honor online courses taken by those unable to register for full classes on campus.

“I don’t see, as the headlines might suggest today, that web-based education is going to be a paradigm shift and take over higher education,” Sullivan said. “It is not happening today and it is not going to happen tomorrow.”

Brain Gain or Drain

Only about 45 percent of Vermont high school students go on to college. And half of those students who do seek higher education attend out-of-state schools, Sullivan said.

Sully“If we really want and need, which we do, to have that brain gain in our state  – to avoid the brain drain – we need to figure out how can we expand that pipeline of our high school students,” he added.

In his budget, Governor Peter Shumlin has proposed an additional $2.5 million for UVM, the state colleges and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chairs the Vermont Senate Appropriations Committee. She says Vermont, even through tough budget years, has tried to maintain higher education funding.

“I don’t think it’s an issue at all of questioning or having reservations about higher education,” Kitchel said. “It’s just ultimately making those dollar decisions.”

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