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VSAC Still at Work to Help Vermonters Plan and Pay for Education (op-ed)
By Don Vickers
Many people stop me on the street to ask what’s in store for Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, and the Vermonters we serve, in the wake of legislation eliminating our role as a federal education loan provider. Some things are still in flux, but I wanted to share where we stand as the 2010–11 school year begins:
College access. VSAC continues to play a major role in helping Vermonters gain access to education or training beyond high school. VSAC is seeking renewed federal funding for three educational opportunity programs — two serving students in grades 6–12 and one for adult learners — that we’ve operated as far back as 1969. Meanwhile, we just learned that a federal College Access Challenge Grant awarded two years ago has been renewed for five more years. The services these federal grants support — everything from individual counseling to group presentations to our award-winning Start Where You Are program — are essential as Vermont grapples with a decline in high school population and attempts to coax more residents into continuing their education.
Career and college planning. As we have for many years, VSAC will visit high schools throughout the state to conduct info sessions for families on planning and paying for college. Our resource center in Winooski will continue to offer workshops throughout the school year on a wide range of topics. In the spring, VSAC will again host College Pathways, a day of college planning workshops for students and parents, in three locations statewide. Vermonters who want to borrow books or other materials from VSAC may do so through local libraries using interlibrary loan. VSAC advisors are also available to answer questions at the resource center or by phone. In addition, our Web site has a wealth of career and college planning resources.
Grants and scholarships. VSAC continues to administer need-based Vermont grants for full-time, part-time, and non-degree study. Students interested in applying for a Vermont grant for the 2011–12 academic year may do so on or after Jan. 1, 2011. VSAC also continues to administer more than 100 public and private scholarships available to Vermonters through a unified application. Scholarship deadlines are Feb. 11, 2011 (for “early birds” who want to enter a drawing for one of three $1,000 scholarships) and March 4, 2011.
Private student loans. Our newest private student loan, the Vermont Advantage Loan, became available in early August with a fixed interest rate that is lower than the rate on federal PLUS loans for parents and grad students. Response has been strong, and we expect our private loan to be in even greater demand as second semester approaches.
Federal education loans. Although we no longer finance or disburse federal education loans, a provision engineered by Vermont’s three-member congressional delegation requires the government to include nonprofits like VSAC in the competition for federal loan servicing contracts. To date, the government has focused on converting all colleges in the country to its new direct lending system, and nonprofit servicing contracts have taken a back seat. VSAC is hopeful that talks will begin by the end of the year and that we can negotiate a contract for the period starting July 1, 2011.
Budget and staffing. To weather federal budget cuts and the credit crisis, VSAC began three years ago to shave operating expenses and reduce staff positions through attrition. Once we knew our revenues would be reduced even further by changes to the federal education loan system, we continued to cut our budget and leave positions unfilled as employees left the organization. To date, we have cut our operating budget by 18 percent and our staff by 23 percent, bringing us to 310 employees. In a recent meeting, I advised staff that we will continue to reduce positions through attrition and shouldn’t need to contemplate layoffs until at least July of 2011. Much depends on the outcome of federal loan servicing negotiations, as well as on our ability to develop new revenue sources.
Don Vickers, of Georgia, VT, is president and CEO of VSAC.