March 22, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
ORWELL — Mike Audet wasn’t expecting much of a response in 1982 when he sent a letter to state officials recommending ways to improve his alma mater, Vermont Technical College.
Little did he know that his letter would soon lead to a face-to-face meeting with then-Gov. Richard Snelling, followed by a 24-year stint on the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) board of trustees. There, he would recommend — and help oversee — many improvements to a state college system that has grown immeasurably during Audet’s tenure.
“I’ve always been grateful to Gov. Snelling for appointing a farmer,” said Audet, who with his brother, Tom, has run the Ledge Haven Farm in Orwell for the past 35 years.
Audet decided to retire from the VSC board late last month, citing his desire to make way for some new blood and ideas. His colleagues have ensured he will leave a lasting legacy — in more ways than one. The board recently voted unanimously to name one of Castleton State College’s three new student residences the “Audet House,” in honor of the Orwell native.
“Mike Audet has contributed 24 years to enhancing the Vermont State Colleges for the benefit of Vermont,” said Robert Clarke, VSC chancellor. “His dedication, commitment and forthrightness will be sorely missed.”
Audet joined the board in 1983, and immediately rolled up his sleeves. He participated in the search for a new president for Vermont Technical College. The board ultimately hired Clarke, the current chancellor of the system. It’s a system that includes Castleton State College; the Community College of Vermont; Johnson State College; Lyndon State College; and Vermont Technical College. Together, they are serving 7,062 full-time equivalent students this year. The colleges served 2,350 Addison County residents last year, according to literature provided by VSC administrators.
Audet also noted with pride that 83 percent of the VSC’s current students are Vermonters, while 48 percent of the enrollees are the first in their family to pursue a college degree.
“I give families immense credit,” Audet said. “(A college education) is a major step. It’s a milestone for these families.”
On the downside, Audet noted VSC tuition fees are much higher than the national average. For example, the 2006-2007 in-state tuition fee for Vermont Technical College is $8,184. That’s almost four times the cost of the national average state college fee of $2,272.
Still, Audet thinks Vermonters are getting their money’s worth.
“We’re paying the highest tuition rates in the country, but I think what offsets that is we have the highest (job) placement rate in the country,” Audet said. He said Vermont Technical College has a 98-percent placement rate.
The high tuition costs, Audet said, can be closely linked to the level of state taxes devoted to funding the VSC. Vermont earmarked around $24 million for its state colleges in 2006, which translates to an allocation of $3,389 per student. That places Vermont 49th in the country in terms of per capita spending on higher education, according to VSC officials.
Audet shakes his head when he thinks about how the VSC’s fixed costs have risen throughout the years. As the fifth-largest employer in the state (with around 2,200 workers), the VSC’s annual health care costs were around $900,000 during the early 1980s, according to Audet. That figure has climbed to over $12 million today, he said.
Containing costs, keeping tuitions affordable and maintaining campus buildings will be among the top concerns of the VSC board in the future, accord to Audet. He said there is currently a $40 million backlog of work needed for VSC property, with another $90 million he said is needed to keep the system’s education programs “on the cutting edge.”
Audet added the VSC board will also have to work hard on attracting a solid student base; working with area high schools to ensure graduates are ready for college-level work and lobbying for the state’s vocational technical centers to be increasingly used by some Vermonters who aren’t currently getting access to an education.
“Why aren’t we using these (vocational-technical) centers as business centers?” Audet said.
Now that he’s off the VSC board, Audet plans to spend some time on other volunteer interests, such as the Mount Independence Coalition and Fort Ticonderoga board. His civic resume already includes stints as Orwell town moderator; local school board member; founding member of the Orwell Historical Society; and member of the Vermont Farm Bureau and Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. He is a Vietnam War veteran, having served in the U.S. Navy from 1967-73.
He will never forget his time on the VSC board, an experience that galvanized his faith in the importance of education and how a diploma can increase one’s earning power and self-esteem.
“Would I spend 24 years like this as a volunteer again? In a second,” Audet said.