The Vermont State College system this week released a white paper that put forth its past, its present and its hoped-for future. The 23-page paper is a tutorial in the intersecting challenges we face as a state.

Credit goes to Jeb Spaulding, VSC chancellor, and his board of trustees for taking the initiative to explain the perils the state college system faces. Most Vermonters don’t understand the state college system and its value. Most Vermonters don’t understand the numbers affecting us, nor do they understand the disruption that has flooded higher education’s landscape.

Almost nothing is as it used to be, but unless that’s understood and accepted, figuring out how to respond is impossible. That is the purpose of the VSC’s white paper: to make clear the profound challenges the state college system faces.

If the paper were reduced to a single declarative sentence, it would read: The Vermont State College System cannot continue to exist as is.

Consider these few paragraphs drawn from the study:

• “The number of Vermont high school graduates has decreased by 25 percent over the past ten years and, given record-low birthrates, this trend is expected to continue indefinitely…This very likely means that the system’s capacity, physical footprint, and cost of operations already likely is, or soon likely will be ‘over-built’ relative to future demand.”

• “Despite all our efforts and modest recent successes, pinning the System’s future on consistent and meaningful increases in State funding would be imprudent.”

• “…it is increasingly common to hear from Vermont families that it is less expensive for their children to go to college out of state, at private or public institutions.”

• “In the 2018-19 academic year, there were approximately 540 empty beds throughout the Vermont State Colleges System, representing about a 20 percent vacancy rate.”

• “Our ability to maintain and improve our physical infrastructure is questionable and our risks of systems failures are increasing. The total system-wide deferred maintenance level for the last several years has hovered at approximately $55 million.”

• “‘Confidence in higher education in the US has decreased significantly since 2015, more than any other U.S. institution that Gallup measures.’ (Marken, “A crisis of confidence in higher education,” Gallup 2019). One third of Americans no longer believe a four-year degree prepares graduates to succeed in a job (Pew Research Center, 2017, The State of American Jobs). Increasingly, companies are rethinking whether a degree is mandatory in the employee selection process. Many large companies in the tech sector are no longer requiring applicants to have a college degree.”

Wrapped up in this white paper is the call to innovate, to figure out how to take something that is essential – education at all its various levels – and to make it indispensable to the state’s cultural and economic fabric. Answering that question will, in turn, help us address the issues we face as a highly rural state.

It’s not just a question of how, it’s an understanding that what we face is as potentially transformative as anything the state has faced in generations. We’re staring at a 25 percent decline in the number of births since 1990. The number of 15- to 19-year-olds will be 21.8 percent less from 2010 to 2030. Beginning in 2026 demographers say we will witness a 15 percent decline in college age students by 2031. The VSC system was built to service a student population set at 1990 levels; today we have 540 empty beds.

At the same time, as the paper notes, there are “1,000 more degree granting colleges and universities in 2015 than there were in 1996.” Employers are also recruiting workers out of high school with part of the draw being their willingness to pay for the new employee’s education – which will be an education delivered online, not in a traditional setting. As the white paper noted: “The days when our colleges could rely on increasing enrollment, tuition, and fees are over.” How we deliver our educational services will need to change, how we interact with preK-12 will need to evolve.

The point was made that state support of higher education has fallen off the cliff. In 1998, we ranked third nationally in our support of higher education. Today, we rank 49th.

There is more than enough blame to go around for today’s abysmal support levels, but the answer isn’t to pour good money after bad. It’s too late to make up for past sins. Future needs will require more money than what is currently being allocated, but those needs will be vastly different than what we’ve funded in the past.

In closing, Mr. Spaulding explains that the white paper was intended as a wake up call for Vermont. He asked a series of future-oriented questions as a way to take the conversation to the next step. His success, and that of the VSC system, will depend on harnessing the guiding talent that understands how change and survival are equivalents and cannot be separated.

The collateral value of that mission will be unveiling how the rest of rural Vermont can be helped.

Emerson Lynn is former co-publisher of the Essex Reporter.