How Vermont is winning the fight against falling enrollment

Dedicated to embracing an evolving higher education landscape that's cost-effective, career-minded and digitally native, Vermont has begun to revitalize its once-flailing student body.

Higher education enrollment at Northeastern schools has collectively fallen into a downward spiral since at least 2017, a phenomenon that has plagued every region since the pandemic, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Vermont’s public four-year institutions in fall 2022; however, hit a whopping 12.2% comeback, nearly recuperating pre-pandemic numbers.

Dedicated to embracing an evolving higher education landscape that’s cost-effective, career-minded and digitally native, Vermont has begun to revitalize its once-fledgling student body. Two big initiatives pushing this change are recent school mergers and a powerful free community college pipeline.

Starting this July, Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College will consolidate into Vermont State University—a lean, cost-effective hybrid learning machine. While the separate campuses will remain as is, they will all fall under the new flag. Vermont State University is a reaction to high costs and a fledgling stream of school enrollment. Vermont’s Agency of Education discovered that only 60% of high school graduates pursue higher education. A great incentive will be the school’s low in-state tuition: $9,999 a year.

Aside from increased state investment, the tuition decrease is partly due to the school’s shrewd budget, which has already begun to ruffle some feathers. Last month, full-time faculty filed a motion of no confidence to school leadership when it announced a transition to a fully digital library, which would have eradicated roughly 300,000 books across its five campuses. The erasure was part of the school’s $500,000 commitment to renovating its library spaces, updating them to meet the demands of a digital-first student body. University leaders also added that the decision would save the school $500,000 annually.

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“Based on officially reported IPEDS data from 2014 to 2022, requests for physical materials and books have decreased by 83% to 91%, whereas requests for digital materials have increased by 328% to 3513% at our three institutions: Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College,” read a university statement.

Following the widespread pushback, Vermont State University conceded, promising to keep 10% of its current collection. Books will be salvaged based on the frequency of specific checkouts and their proscribed academic value according to department chairs and the university provost.

Recent philanthropic efforts between the J. Warren & Lois McClure Foundation in partnership with the Community College of Vermont allows recently graduated high school students to complete their associate degree at no cost through the state’s Free Degree Promise. The initiative also provides students with a living stipend and career counseling. Low-income student enrollment has since flourished, with the Community College of Vermont reporting its largest Early College enrollment figure.

Vermont’s enrollment numbers at public four-year institutions teetered toward a decline dating back to at least 2017. The pandemic, however, plunged those numbers by 13% between fall 2019 and fall 2021, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While Vermont’s four-year public institution enrollment has swung back 12.2%, its private non-profit school enrollment continues a steep decline: 19% since the fall of 2019.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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