College presidents are sitting on the edges of their financial seats fervently hoping the students already enrolled will return and that today’s high school seniors will commit to their schools in numbers sufficient to keep them solvent. In a state like Vermont, it’s a billion dollar-plus worry.

In Chittenden County alone, we have roughly 20,000 students between the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s, and Champlain College. We can’t afford for a sizable percentage of them to take a gap year, or to decide to go somewhere closer to home, which is the prevailing fear.

Although first reports show a decent fall enrollment for UVM, the concern remains simply because no one knows the path of the virus and what happens when the economy begins to churn forward and people return to their routines. Because the state supports UVM at such a meager level, the school has to recruit from outside our borders to make the dollars work. Of the university’s 13,000 students, three-quarters of them are from out-of-state and they pay a little over $43,000 for tuition each year compared to the $18,000 figure for in-state students.

We’re hostage. If the out-of-state students don’t come, or even if the numbers slump to any significant degree, UVM’s balance sheet starts to bleed. And we have no identifiable way to make it up.

The same risk applies to St. Michael’s and Champlain College, which also depend disproportionately on out-of-state students.

That level of risk twined with the state’s dependency on the schools’ collective health presents an obvious opportunity/responsibility: The three schools should combine efforts and launch an informational campaign focused on what’s being done to assure the students’ safety when they show up for school in September.

We have an advantage few other schools have, which is the University of Vermont Medical Center. It sits in the middle of UVM, which is adjacent to Champlain College and less than two miles from St. Michael’s. [St. Michael’s is also right next to Fanny Allen Rehab Center in Colchester.]

The UVM Medical Center has sufficient testing capabilities to test the students from all three schools when they first show up and at intervals during the school year should the need exist. This capacity is essential. It’s the testing that allows us to know when breakouts occur and where. It’s also the sort of information incoming students [and their parents] need to know as they consider their last minute applications.

This testing capability along with the hospital’s proximity to the students is the sort of comfort that distinguishes us from other schools in other, larger states. It’s the sort of joint support effort that could help the schools maintain their strength, which, by extension helps the rest of Vermont.

The governor’s press conference — held now several times a week — would be the ideal setting for such an announcement. It would include the three college presidents, the governor, and the medical staff at UVMMC. It would be a welcoming message sent out to students here in Vermont, and beyond. And, who knows, when it’s understood that Vermont is a safe place, with good schools, perhaps the students’ parents would follow, helping us with our demographic challenges. Of course, they’d still need to pay their out-of-state tuitions.

by Emerson Lynn

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