By EMERSON LYNN

The Vermont State College system thought it had a deal. It would shut down its plan for a 2.9 percent tuition increase if the Legislature and the governor agreed to a $3 million increase to the colleges’ base appropriation. The deal didn’t happen.

The governor was on board. The House agreed. The Senate did not; it did agree to $2.5 million but the last half million dollars was to be a one-time appropriation. VSC president Jeb Spaulding said he could not roll back all of the tuition increase if he didn’t have the full amount. The end result was a one percent increase in tuition.

The story, however, is bigger than the Senate being stingy. It’s a story that should worry us as a state.

We have seen three of our colleges close their doors. We continue to see fewer students. We know the competition between colleges for this smaller demographic is intensifying. We know that higher education is the second largest “industry” in Vermont, and one in decline.

It’s an issue we understand intellectually, but one we choose to ignore. We spend more than almost any state for preK through high school, yet when it comes to higher education our support drops off the cliff. We’re at the very bottom when it comes to spending for our colleges, and, as a consequence, our tuition levels are near the nation’s top.

That lack of support is weakening the system as a whole. We’re not addressing the high cost of college tuition. We’re not addressing the needs of a 21st century workforce. Failing on both fronts puts us in an untenable position when it comes to maintaining or increasing the state’s economic well being.

What explains this lack of support?

Part of it has to be attributed to the fact our public school system is central to each town’s identity. There is a direct tie between our schools, the public, and the people who represent us in the Legislature. Each representative is an advocate for the school[s] represented.

Who within the Legislature are the advocates for higher education? If you want to talk to an elected official in Montpelier who truly understands higher education, and who argues knowledgeably and passionately about its importance to the state, who would that be?

We draw a blank.

That task is left to the heads of the Vermont State College system and the University of Vermont. And, unfortunately, our appropriations process is set up in a way that pits one against the other. We haven’t figured out a way to make the success of both a collective exercise.

It’s a stunning weakness. The University of Vermont pumps over a billion dollars a year through the state’s economy and yet, despite the university’s best effort, the Legislature has generated little to no effort to figure out how to leverage UVM’s strength to the state’s benefit. The potential lies dormant.

The same applies to the Vermont State College System; there is little forward thinking about the system’s future. It’s like watching for signs of failure but doing nothing to be proactive.

This lack of creative thought and leadership is on stage with the public school system as well. We’re losing students and closing schools, and the impact, present and future, is dramatic. If schools, and the education they provide, are central to our prosperity – at all levels – then where is the leadership that has us thinking about potential answers?

When a school closes – whether it’s a college, or a public school – the options are two-fold: do nothing, or put in place a plan to move forward.

Right now – at almost every level – we do nothing. We’re starved for the leadership that believes failure is not an option when we talk about the future of education and its role in Vermont’s economic, social and cultural future.