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Beth Foy: NVU committee envisions learning and working community

Northern Vermont University is a critical institution for the northern Vermont economy and to the lives of many Vermonters statewide. It is no secret that NVU has had many struggles over recent years, like many other higher education institutions, including changing demographics, lack of state financial support, and most recently, the Covid-19 epidemic.

As a member of the NVU Strong Advisory Committee, I have spent the past several weeks better understanding these challenges and working through potential solutions. A few key points became clear during this process: NVU needs to evolve its business model to better meet the emerging and future needs of our students, communities, and employers; NVU has the opportunity to become even more instrumental in the success of our region and our students than ever before; our state must ensure the fiscal health of our public institutions; and higher education through state institutions must be more affordable for all students. These key points are vital to ensure a strong NVU for generations to come.

To better meet the future needs of Vermont’s students and employers, the NVU Strong Advisory Committee envisions that NVU will offer flexibly delivered programs that support lifelong learning. Stackable credits will give students on- and off-ramps to earn skill-based certificates, leading to associate and then bachelor’s degrees, mid-career skills training, and/or master’s degrees.

Degree programs will integrate academic learning objectives with career-oriented learning experiences, requiring students to engage in internships, cooperative learning, and on-campus jobs. This hands-on approach will prepare students for their future careers through practical career-oriented experience and soft-skills development such as critical thinking, oral and written communication, leadership, professionalism, and teamwork while also serving the needs of our local businesses, nonprofits and the communities in which they serve.

An exciting piece of our recommendation is the creation of a new model for NVU — a Learning and Working Community. In this model, formal partnerships between NVU and local businesses, public entities, and nonprofits will be developed with some organizations co-locating on campus. Academic degree and certificate programs will align with these partnerships to meet current and future workforce needs, a benefit to all stakeholders. Other partnerships will physically or virtually collaborate — in the classroom and out — on mutually beneficial work experiences, research projects, and professional development for mid-career professionals.

NVU will provide impactful economic and workforce benefits to our local and regional communities with this new model. This is a win-win-win. NVU will have a thriving campus; students will gain lifelong skills and make valuable future networking connections; and local businesses and nonprofits will have their labor needs met. These partnerships will also encourage students to stay and work in Vermont, while creating a vibrant NVU working community that provides flexibility for students, strengthens the region’s economy and workforce, and maximizes use of our campus resources.

For this vision to become a reality, NVU must be affordable enough to attract students. To make college affordable, the state must meaningfully fund the Vermont State Colleges System. Vermont ranks 49th in the country for our investment in higher education. If we are going to have a successful economy with vibrant communities and a population that does not primarily consist of retirees and second-home owners, 49th in the nation won’t cut it. For future success, we need a meaningful, sustained state investment in our higher education system now.

Additionally, NVU must streamline so it can sustain for generations to come. The committee recognizes that the university must right-size. NVU must now complete an academic program review, identifying the programs to be closed, combined, or moved to another Vermont State Colleges System institution in a mutually beneficial way.