Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Can Vermont's state colleges survive?

July 11, 2014

The Vermont State Colleges have a new chair of the Board of Trustees. Before the year is out, a new Chancellor will be occupying the Colleges (relatively) new Montpelier office, and with a little luck the system will have a new contract with its professors.

Now all they need is more students, more money, and a plan to ensure their survival.

And that's the easy part.

Because to devise that plan, the Colleges system (a single entity with five separate colleges and one plural name) first has to decide what it is, what it can be, and what it wants to be.

Or as the former (since July 1) chair Gary Moore put it, "we need to determine where the state colleges are going to go and what they"re going to do, and equally important, what things they can't do."

For all their troubles - falling enrollment, skimpy help from the State's treasury, uncertainty if not confusion about their mission - the State colleges will not die. They're too valuable, more valuable than most Vermonters probably realize, which is part of their problem. The State Colleges are where most Vermonters go to college. Right now, roughly 10,800 of them go to one of the three liberal arts colleges (at Castleton, Lyndon, and Johnson), Vermont Technical College, or the Community College of Vermont.

That's about two-and-a-half times more than the 4,200 or so Vermonters at the University of Vermont.

True, the majority of those State College students are at the system's fifth "campus," the Community College of Vermont, which has no single campus at all, but conducts classes at 12 locations around the state. Almost all CCV students are part-timers, as are all of their teachers (CCV is the only college in the country with no full-time faculty).

So as the term is commonly understood, these students are not "going to college." as are those who enroll at Castleton or Johnson State. They"re not living in a dormitory, hanging out at the college snack bar, playing (or rooting for) the school teams, or participating in other extracurricular activities.

They"re just taking a class or two.

But many of them end up transferring their CCV credits to one of the system's other schools, or to UVM, or elsewhere.

Those CCV classes cost $239 per credit, or $717 for a typical three-credit class. That's a lot cheaper than going to Johnson State, where a student taking a 15-credit load for the $9,600 in-state tuition is paying $640 a credit.

On the basis of tuition alone, UVM is actually cheaper than Johnson (or Lyndon and Castleton, where the tuition is about the same; Vermont Tech's is about $2,000 more). But many more students at the State Colleges can live at home or in inexpensive off-campus apartments. The State Colleges are the cheaper alternative, meaning they are not only where most Vermonters go to college, they are especially where most students from lower-income families go to college.

But still apparently too expensive for many students and their families to afford. That's one reason there are empty spaces at Johnson, Lyndon, and Vermont Tech, and Tim Donovan, the soon-to-retire Chancellor of the system, insists that this is no accident. Vermont, Donovan said, has "chosen as a state, maybe inadvertently." to keep tuitions high.

Tim Donovan, outgoing Chancellor of the Vermont State College system, talks with Jon Margolis about the status of higher education in Vermont

When the system began operating in 1962, he said, half the cost of educating the students came from state funds. Now the state puts up only18 percent, the 49th lowest percentage in the country. So low is the state's contribution, Donovan said, that if the Legislature increased it by half, Vermont's ranking among the states would rise only to 47th.

Vermont's "public policy choice." he said, "makes public higher education more expensive (to the student) than it is in most other states."

No problem, then. Just get the Legislature to funnel several million more dollars into the College system (up from this Fiscal Year's $24.5 million), reduce tuition, and all the colleges will be full to capacity.

Not hardly.

To begin with, enrollments are not falling just because there aren't enough students with money. There are not as many potential students at all, with or without money. Non-Hispanic white Americans are not having many children these days. And who else lives in Vermont, New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, or eastern Upstate New York, home to almost all Vermont State College students"

"Throughout the Northeast, we are halfway through a projected eight-year decline in the number of high school graduates." said Chancellor Donovan.

Besides, despite passage of a bill calling for a study about increasing the state's share of higher education spending, the legislature is not going to funnel several more millions to the Colleges, and officials know it.

"We have to be realistic, 'said Martha O"Connor, the new chair of the Colleges Trustees. "The state has so many people looking for money for so many situations. We can't expect the state to bail us out of this. We can hope that they work with us looking for a permanent solution."

But neither O"Connor nor anyone else knows what the solution would be. Nobody at the Colleges pays much attention to the occasional suggestion that one college- usually either Lyndon or Johnson State, which are only 52 miles apart - could be shut down completely.

Without even getting into the political near-impossibility of such a move (one reason F. Ray Keyser became the first Republican in more than a century to lose the governorship was his plan to close Lyndon State), it would wreak economic havoc; all four campuses are vital to their local economies. Nor is there much reason to suppose that if one of them was eliminated, its students would switch to the other one. Many of those students would probably leave college altogether.

Cost-cutting doesn't appear to be a very productive option, either, because the Colleges seem not to be over-spending. Even the heads of the unions - United Professionals for the faculty and the Vermont State Employees Association for non-professional staff - don't claim that the Colleges are guilty of building up a bloated administrative bureaucracy.

The unions have their complaints. Castleton Professor Linda Olsen, the head of the United Professionals unit, said the union wanted the Colleges to "be hiring full-time faculty instead of relying heavily on part-time faculty." and that faculty salaries are "far below the national averages."

But nobody at the Vermont State Colleges is pulling in the big bucks. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Donovan was the lowest-paid head of a public college or university system in the country in 2010.

Like many another public higher education system, the State Colleges could also try to increase the number of out-of-state students, who pay roughly twice the tuition that Vermonters pay.

But this would seem contrary to the mission of providing a college education to Vermonters who cannot afford the more expensive schools. Donovan said that a greater percentage of young Vermonters finish high school than in almost any other state, but a smaller percentage go on to any college.

Roughly 7,000 young Vermonters graduate from high school every year, he said, but only 60 percent of them go to college at all, and half of them leave the state to do so. He called that an extraordinary waste of potential human capital.

There is room for more students at the State Colleges, and Martha O"Connor thinks better programs will attract more students.

That seems self-evident, but some worry that if "better" simply means, "more marketable." that approach poses a danger to the Colleges. Because "more marketable" in turn often means "more vocational" - classes designed to train students for particular professions at the cost of a traditional liberal arts education.

David Plezak, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Johnson State, who once taught at Lyndon State, said he worried that 'short-term thinking" based only on the need 'to put tushes in the seats" could end up giving short shrift to classes in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and even the pure (as opposed to applied) physical sciences.

Gary Moore, who will remain on the Board until February, said he hopes that doesn't happen. "I strongly feel we need to have well-rounded, well-educated students." he said.

O"Connor did not seem as concerned, but said this factor - like all the other questions facing the Colleges - had to be examined in context.

"We can't just look at this piecemeal." she said. "We can't just pick one thing and say, that's the problem. We have to look at the whole picture."

She's looking forward to doing that. "I"m not despairing over anything." she said.

Is Anyone Listening to Vermont Radio?

May 2, 2014
     What a high tech, wired (yet wireless) world. With its Hulus and YouTubes and streamings and Skypes and so many other ways to be informed and entertained.

    So what do most people do every day to find out what's going on and to listen to music"

    They turn on the radio.

    Yup, good old-fashioned, tune-the-dial AM and FM radio. In sheer numbers, nothing else touches its reach, neither in Vermont nor in the other 49 states.

    According to the Neilson company, which measures radio and television audiences, 242 million people over the age of 12 listen to the radio at least once a week.

    That's 91.7 percent of everybody, and in this case everybody really means everybody. There are a few demographic differences. More older men than women listen, more younger women than men. But the differences are small. Old or young, black or white, Hispanic or Anglo, rich or poor, roughly 90 percent of every subgroup listens to the radio.

    Vermont is just a bit of an outlier here. A spokesperson for Nielson said only (if "only" is the right word) 86.6 percent of Vermonters are regular radio listeners.

    Maybe that's because so much radio listening is done while driving to work " 7 AM is the peak listening hour all over the country " and while Vermonters drive to work, their commutes are shorter. Fewer traffic jams.

    Even if its audience is a few percentage points short of the national average, Vermont's radio business is 'strong." said Jim Condon, the Executive Director of the Vermont Association of Broadcasters (and also a Democratic member of the House of Representative from Colchester). "Listenership is up."

    So it is, but largely because there are more people listening. Ratings " the percentage of people who are listening " are down. They aren't down much, but there are signs that all those new technologies pose a challenge to radio in the future.

  Asked if her students listen to the radio, Traci Griffith, the Chair of the Communications Department at St. Michael's College, said, "Not tune-the-dial radio."

    Today's students, she said, "want to listen to what they want when they want to listen to it." So they are less likely to switch on the radio than stream music from a service such as Pandora, which claims it can algorithmically choose music to each person's taste. Just give Pandora one song you like and it will "find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice." it says.

Radio is communal, not individualistic.
   Attracting a (slightly) smaller percentage of listeners than most of the rest of the country is not the only way the Vermont radio scene differs from the national norm. The Vermont station with the biggest audience does not play country music or shout outlandish political opinion. The station with the biggest audience, according to the Nielsen Audio National Regional Database (as of last September), is WVPS-FM, the Burlington area's public radio outlet, which has an AQH (average number of persons per quarter hour) of 10.5 percent and a weekly "Cume" (the number of different persons who listen for at least five minutes) of 90,600, well ahead of its runner-up.

    In some ways, Vermont Public Radio dominates the radio scene in the state. Robin Turnau, its president and CEO, said it is "one of the most listened to (public radio) systems, per capita, in the country and also very well supported."

    Nothing else has its statewide reach. The seven regular VPR stations and six VPR classical stations don't quite blanket the whole state. But they come far closer than any other system.

    And in more ways than one, Vermont is a public radio kind of state. One of those ways, Turnau acknowledged, is that Vermont is an old state.

    "Public radio's core demographic tends to be 45 plus." said Turnau. "That's who were trying to serve."

    Vermonters are also relatively well-educated, and well-educated people tend to want to know what is going on around them. Many tune (or stream) to VPR because it provides one kind of programming found almost nowhere else on Vermont radio: state and local news.

    VPR employs 11 part-time and full-time reporters working under an experienced news director. Vermont's other stations employ somewhere between none and very, very, few, not counting the college and university stations, which mostly cover news on their own campuses.

    Several small-town stations devote effort and air time to public affairs " interviewing office-holders, candidates, and community leaders, broadcasting some select board or school board meetings live. And most stations provide a brief national newscast from New York or Washington several times a day.

    But putting a lively school board or select board meeting on the air is not the same as hiring a reporter to cover it.

    One station " WDEV in Waterbury (on both the AM and FM dials) " probably devotes more time state and local public affairs than VPR. Mark Johnson's call-in interview program has become indispensible to the state's public conversation. The station regularly breaks into regular programming for local bulletins, and even most of its opinion-spouters (Bernie Sanders on the left, the Ethan Allen Institute on the right) are local.

    While there is plenty of country music played on Vermont radio stations " the second biggest audience belongs to WOKO-FM with a 7.0 AQH and 62,100 "cume" " compared to the rest of the country there is relatively little outlandish political opinion. A listener can find Rush Limbaugh on the radio in Vermont, but not easily and not everywhere. His web site lists just two Vermont outlets: WVMT-AM in Burlington, the 17th most-listened to station with a 1.7 AQH; and WSNO-AM in Barre, with a smaller audience.

    Radio in Vermont is also more likely to be"well, radio in and from Vermont as opposed to syndicated programming piped out of a studio in a far-off high-rise and beamed everywhere at once.

    There are commercial radio chains in the state. But at even the biggest of them " Radio Broadcasting Services of South Burlington, which owns seven stations " most of the broadcasting originates in the state. The stations in Burlington, Middlebury, Addison and St. Albans play "oldies" songs, and "when the DJ is talking and the music is playing it's all the same." said company vice president Ed Flanagan. But that DJ is in a Vermont studio.

    In Condon's view, Vermont radio is successful largely to the extent that it is local.

    "People want to communicate." he said. They want a station that will tell them if a local road is closed and to which they can report a lost cat.

    But Traci Griffith points out that even in Vermont, truly local radio may be becoming "a thing of the past."

    The numbers seem to bear her out. The Vermont Association of Broadcasters web site lists 88 Vermont radio stations. Subtract VPR's 13, nine college stations and eight religious stations. That leaves 58 commercial stations. Fifty are owned by corporations, 12 by out-of-state corporations.
    Corporate, to be sure, is a synonym for neither undesirable nor mediocre. But it often engenders standardization, and Vermont radio is increasingly less idiosyncratic, barely distinguishable from all the stations all over the country that use format and formula to attract audiences and hold down expenses.

Public radio and talk radio make news.
Music is what makes money, so music dominates commercial radio, with each station choosing a format: country; adult contemporary (sometimes called "middle of the road"); Oldies (songs from the 1950s and 1960s, Condon said); Classic Hits (1970s and 10980s) and more. As in the rest of the country, far as Vermont may be from Nashville (geographically and otherwise), country music is the most listened-to format. Its AQH share is 25.4 percent, followed by 18 percent for News/Talk and 10.9 for adult contemporary.

    In Vermont, most of the songs are selected by disk jockeys in Vermont (or Plattsburgh, NY or Lebanon, NH). But the tone, the patter, and the music in Burlington is all but indistinguishable from what one would hear in Birmingham, Bowling Green, or Bozeman. Like suburban subdivisions and shopping malls, radio has become less quirky, more homogenized, even in Vermont.

    Here and there, on some stations " or at least on some programs on some stations " quirkiness survives. It actually thrives at WDEV, where the format is to have no format. The station broadcasts Red Sox games and classical music, arts calendars and NASCAR races, jazz and news commentary, and a Saturday morning show called "music to go to the dump by."

    Good radio shouldn't take itself too seriously.

    "It's a patchwork." said station President Ken Squier. "We keep being local and relevant."

    Squier said he is not concerned about those young people streaming via Pandora rather than turning on the radio.

    "All young people have always seen their music as a form of independence, a way of staking our claim. We don't do music for children."

    Maybe those "children" will grow up to listen to stations like WDEV. Or maybe someone will figure out how radio stations can charge fees for streaming the music listeners want to hear when they want to hear it, or how to hook up those streaming services with advertising. Radio has been declared dead before. Television was supposed to kill it, but it adapted and thrived.

    It might adapt to the Internet, too. Either way, there's still plenty to listen to in Vermont, plenty of the standard formula stuff, or " if you keep touching that dial " a little bit of the old quirkiness.

  "That doesn't work here." said Condon. "They"re no longer in Vermont."
   Not that consolidation and syndication have bypassed the state entirely. Some years ago, the media giant Clear Channel bought some Vermont stations, which broadcast music "delivered from their headquarters in Dallas." remembered Condon.

Vermont: 1964 - Today

January 10, 2014
  Vermont Newsguy Jon Margolis is the author of the book "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964" " the subject of the next installment of "The American Experience" on PBS January 14th.  In his new installment of The Vermont Newsguy for VPT, Margolis examines what Vermont looked like in 1964 and how it has changed in the last 50 years.   

  That New Years Day, a traveler could drive into Vermont from the south on Interstate 91, crossing the border from Massachusetts right about at the Guilford-Vernon line, and then zooming as far north as"well, about as far north as Bellows Falls.

    From there northward, it was Route 5, inching through all the towns and villages along the way.

    There was a little more of Interstate 89. Motorists could drive between Montpelier and Bolton, and also between Richmond and Winooski. But not straight through.

    A few days after the year began, the Legislature convened in Montpelier. The 30 senators gathered in their chamber. The 246 House members met in theirs.

    Yes, 246 House members. The year that had just begun was 1964, and Vermonters still elected one House member from each town, regardless of size. The 35,000 residents of Burlington elected one House member. So did the 113 of Stannard. House members representing 12 percent of the people comprised a majority.

    Not for long. The year that began half a century ago was the one in which Vermont entered the modern world.

    Or perhaps was pulled into it, not quite kicking and screaming, with as much reluctance as enthusiasm. As it was in the rest of the country, 1964 was a year of profound change in Vermont, a kind of dividing line between eras. Vermont's old era " when it was dominated by small towns, dairy farmers, the Republican Party, and antagonism toward the federal government " was fading. Something else was beginning.

    The new beginning, needless to say, had earlier beginnings. There is something a touch arbitrary about assigning unique significance to any one year. The Interstate highway system that would transform the state began in the late 1950s. For a few years after 1964, the state would still have a poll tax, and University of Vermont students and visitors would still enjoy (and defend) the blatantly racist "kake walk. "The Legislature would not abandon its "one town-one vote" system until 1965. And Democrat Phil Hoff had eked out a victory in 1962, becoming Vermont's first Democratic governor in more than a century.

Still, it was in 1964 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres." meaning in all states lawmakers would have to represent voters, not towns. It was in 1964 that the NAACP first formally criticized UVM for the Kake walk. And it was in 1964 that Vermont first voted Democratic down the line. Not only was Hoff re-elected, but so were all the other Democratic statewide candidates, and Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater, becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since before the Civil War.

    "That second term for Hoff signaled that (his victory in) 1962 wasn't a fluke." said Mark Hudson, the Executive Director of the Vermont historical Society.

    And throughout the year, the bulldozers kept churning and the concrete kept being poured. By the end of the year, more than 13 more miles of I-89 had been open to traffic.

    "The Interstates were it." when assessing the single biggest factor that "pushed Vermont into the modern age." said Chris Graff, the veteran Vermont journalist who is now vice president for communications at National Life Group.

    Graff said the expansion of the IBM plant in Essex, new and bigger ski resorts, and second home development. "Just would not have happened if it wasn't easy to get to Vermont."

    And that growth, he said, with its occasional excesses, brought about the reaction that led to the Land Use and Development Act (Act 250) and other environmental laws which are now central to government and society in the state, and such an important part of its nationwide image.

    In 1964, Vermont's population had been growing for more than a decade. But in many ways the state remained "a very isolated rural backwater, with an old economy based on dairy farming, lumbering, quarrying and small manufacturing." said Paul Searls, an assistant professor of history at Lyndon State College.

    But it was not only the state's economy that was archaic, Searls said. So was its governmental structure, in which power was centered in 'tiny fiefdoms of local control."

    If the Interstates brought the state into the 20th Century economically, that U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1964 (Reynolds v. Sims) and the federal court orders that followed did the job governmentally. The following year, amidst great controversy and no little anguish, the legislature recreated itself, reducing the House of Representatives to 150 members, apportioned by population, not town lines.

    Not all Vermonters were happy about the changes.  Romaine Tenney did not like the new Vermont the Interstates would bring, and would not leave the land his family had farmed since 1892, though it was in the pathway of I-91. When the sheriff's deputies came to evict him, he set fire to his farmhouse and died with it.

    Percy Mendell did not like the federal government ordering Vermont to change the way it chose its House of Representatives.

    "It's how we elect our Legislature. And it's worked just fine." he said. "What right do the folks in Washington have to come in and tell us to fix what ain't broke" It just flies in the face of logic " and it destroys local control."

    Percy Mendell is fiction, a character in "Into the Wilderness." a novel by Deborah Lee Luskin of Newfane. Luskin never got to Vermont until 1965, and she was then only nine years old. But she set her novel in the fictional town of Orton, Vermont, 1964, and said she did extensive research into what life was like in rural Vermont then, reading old newspapers and talking to people who remembered those days.

    And there's little doubt that the outlook she has Mendell express was widely held in rural Vermont at the time. Nor was it just a matter of governmental philosophy.  It was also a matter of power and money. Under the old system, lawmakers used their power to funnel state money into the small towns. It was 'small-town pork-barrel legislation." in the words of Anthony Marro and Stephen C. Terry in their book, "Philip Hoff: How Red turned Blue in the Green Mountain State.

    Fictional though he was, Mendell was at least partly right. If switching to one person-one vote did not "destroy" local control, it greatly diminished it. The state now handles many of the functions then under the control of the towns. In 1964 each town had an "overseer of the poor." It was they who dealt with income support for the disabled and indigent. There was no state welfare system. Nor were there state environmental laws, though Hoff tried to get the Legislature to pass a bill regulating land use. Hoff called that his "most tragic loss" of the year.

    Change is never easy, its benefits are not without some cost, and the benefits are not evenly distributed. In general Vermont is far more prosperous than it was in 1964, but to some extent the prosperity has followed the paths of the Interstates. The economic troubles of Rutland and Bennington, Chris Graff notes, can be at least partly explained by how far they are from the highways.

    A more centralized government inevitably brings with it more bureaucracy, more control from farther away, and even if "farther away" in this case is only as far as Montpelier, dealing with a state office is more impersonal than dealing with the town clerk, who is also a neighbor. The consolidated "union" high school, not in the center of the village but out on the highway, may have more up-do-date facilities than its smaller predecessor, but perhaps gives some parents the 'sense they are losing control over their own children." Paul Searls notes.

    As it is elsewhere, life in Vermont is more standardized, more homogenized than it was 50 years ago. Television, chain stores and restaurants, suburban subdivisions that seem all to have been designed by the same (not very good") architect almost seem to have conspired to blot out distinctions.

    Vermont still seems to want to retain its distinctions, and despite all the changes, the 2014 debates about how to do so sound not so different from the discussions of 1964: how much should state government do and how much left to "local control"" Should schools or school districts consolidate"  Should economic growth be guided or limited, or just left to the dynamics of the market"

    Such discussions are not unique to Vermont, but seem to have more salience here simply because most Vermonters do want to retain the small towns, the pastoral landscape and the more personal ambiance of the state's past. The irony, as historian Searls sees it, is that "in order for Vermonters to take control of their own destiny they have to shape it rather than have outside forces shape it."

    In other words, a certain amount of very modern government planning " the kind Phil Hoff envisioned but could not accomplish in 1964 " may be needed to preserve what people want preserve of the past. Left untouched, the dynamics of the market will suburbanize and standardize everything in their path. Among the legacies of 1964, it seems, is what to argue about and how to argue it.

«older newer»

Vermont PBS educates, informs, entertains and inspires Vermonters to be lifelong learners and engaged in their community.

Kids' Club

Watch our Vermont PBS Kids' 24/7 channel. Enjoy the benefits of joining our Kids' Club! Explore our many free videos, games, and resources for educators and parents!

Upcoming and featured!

People talk about Vermont PBS! proudly supported in part by...


Vermont PBS

204 Ethan Allen Avenue
Colchester, VT 05446
(802) 655-4800
© 2017 Vermont PBS
All Rights Reserved

Facebook Twitter YouTube LinkedIn