Amid financial uncertainty, the Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees has outlined new priorities to try and keep public higher education stable for the future.

The Board has its sight set on affordability, accessibility, quality and relevance for Vermont State Colleges. That means reducing the cost of attendance, broadening availability for Vermonters regardless of their background or location, and tailoring programs to the needs of Vermont’s workforce. Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said these goals will be backed by specifics in the coming weeks.

“We’ll be working with the Presidents to talk through the potential strategies for each of those initiatives and coming up with the benchmarks to measure our performance on these items,” Zdatny said.

The Board is also figuring out whether to consolidate or close programs at Castleton State University and Northern Vermont University that have low-enrollment, as well as programs that are offered at both schools.

It’s an open-ended question of how to cut costs while maintaining quality.

“That is the hard part,” said Rep. Jim Masland (D-Windsor/Orange). “We can have a framework and we can begin to work forward with it and it makes a lot of good sense, but the hard part is getting to the heart of the decision and making up our collective minds and saying ‘okay, this is what we’ve decided to do for all these reasons.”

Rep. Masland was reacting to a report on combining programs at Castleton and NVU that involved faculty and administrator input, but multiple board members suggested an external group may eventually need to help make the tough decisions.

That being said, consolidating programs seems to be a drop in the bucket when it comes to the financial struggle staring down state colleges.

“Historically, we have been trimming and trimming and we’ve shrunk, and that really has an impact on the quality of programs,” Zdatny said. “I don’t think that this alone is going to move the needle, but it is really important work that needs to happen.”

Last week, Gov. Phil Scott approved $36 million in bridge funding for state colleges. The Board’s strategic priorities are a jumping-off point for the months ahead, where the longterm viability of these schools will go under the microscope.

In her meeting with state college presidents, Chancellor Zdatny will be discussing which of the Board’s different priorities will be tackled in this academic year.

Zdatny also outlined spring semester plans for each institution, but noted that they’re still somewhat in flux because final details have yet to be determined.