Johnson State College held its final commencement on Saturday. On July 1, it merges with Lyndon State College to form Northern Vermont University.

The merger was born of economic necessity — fewer students are going to college than in the past, largely because there are far fewer students, period. Vermont public school enrollment declined from 103,000 in 1997 to 78,300 in 2015, a 24 percent decrease, and it’s still going down. 

With fewer students coming out of high school, fewer students are headed for college, and that means a decline in tuition money that helps to balance college budgets.

The colleges had to save money, and merging administrative offices and oversight functions will accomplish that. Without the merger, the colleges would have run out of cash by now; they would then lose about $2 million a year. Instead, with the merger, the colleges expect to be in the black a year from now.

Without the merger, either Johnson or Lyndon likely would have closed. With the merger, Lyndon and Johnson can preserve both campuses and the programs in which they excel — for instance, Lyndon’s climate change science degree, the only one of its kind in the Northeast.

For four years, enrollment at Johnson State declined steadily, from 1,783 students in 2012 to 1,514 in 2015, but the college has been fighting to gain ground and things started to turn around two years ago. Elaine Collins, the Johnson State president who will become president of the new university, has been emphasizing enrollment, retention and branding. She expanded the college’s recruiting territory, put more staff members on the road, and added new programs.

Retention rates have been steady, with about 70 percent of students returning to campus in each of the last few years.

Lyndon’s enrollment has declined steadily since 2013, to just under 1,300 students. When the campuses unify, enrollment will total nearly 2,800 students.

By no means is declining enrollment just a Vermont problem. Nationally, the number of college students dropped 2.4 million in a five-year period, to about 18 million in the semester that ended a year ago. No upswing is expected for five or six years.

For Lamoille County, the merger preserves a major asset. Johnson State has contributed mightily to the county’s economy, its leadership ranks and its intellectual climate. State legislators and business leaders have emerged from Johnson State, and faculty and staff members have raised the level of debate in politics and society.

However, this merger will not end the financial straits of the Vermont State Colleges system. Though more than 80 percent of its students come from Vermont — nearly triple the percentage at the University of Vermont — the state colleges have been the poor sister in state financing of higher education. State law says the state colleges will be “supported in whole or in substantial part with state funds.” But it’s been decades since that was the case, and now the state colleges receive only about 15 percent of their revenues from the state.

The colleges have done what they can to cut costs and boost efficiency without hurting education. Hundreds of jobs were cut between 2014 and 2016, saving $3.6 million between 2014 and 2016. Contributions to employee pensions are down, health insurance is no longer a retirement benefit, high-deductible health insurance programs have cut expenses, and pay raises run below the average for comparable public sector employees.

With meager state funding, the Vermont State Colleges have to rely on tuition, with some of the highest public in-state tuition rates in the country. That’s a key reason that, while Vermont has a high graduation rate from high school, it has the lowest rate in New England of students going on to college. That’s a particular problem for low-income graduates; only 38 percent go to college, compared to 59 percent for students from more well-off families.

Study after study shows that a college degree translates into much higher income over a lifetime, and high tuition severely limits the economic and social prospects of too many Vermont families. In the long run, that will increasingly become a drag on Vermont’s economy and its people.

So, while the Johnson-Lyndon merger is good news, much, much more remains to be done.

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