Note: This guest commentary is by Jeb Spaulding, who is chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges.
Of the 6,000 or so Vermonters about to graduate from high school, more than 2,000 are unlikely to further their education after June. They will join a growing cohort of young Vermonters who lack the credentials necessary to succeed in our economy. In fact, Vermont has the lowest college enrollment rate in New England.
More troubling is that less than 40 percent of our economically disadvantaged students continue on to college. A recent study by the nonprofit Education Trust found that, nationally, 80 percent of young people from middle class families earn bachelor’s degrees by age 24, versus only 11 percent of students in the lowest income quartile. The poverty rate is twice as high for those with only a high school diploma compared to a bachelor’s degree. Their median income is $11,000 less, their health outcomes are worse, too many require a lifetime of public assistance, and the odds that their children will pursue college are considerably lower.
The best way to combat the growing income and opportunity disparity in Vermont would be to significantly increase the number of Vermonters pursuing education after high school. Harvard’s Robert Putnam asserts that the dividing line between the haves and have-nots is increasingly a college education. Higher education is the surest escape route from poverty.
Helping many more Vermonters pursue higher education is an economic imperative for the state. A 2013 Economic Policy Institute study found that one of the most important ways to boost a state’s economy is to raise the education level of its citizens. It concluded, “states that have educated workforces have stronger and higher wage economies than those that don’t.”
The status quo in higher education is leaving too many behind, at great expense to our economy, our communities and individual Vermonters.
Thankfully, the state has agreed upon a critically important goal to significantly increase the percentage of Vermonters with a postsecondary degree or meaningful credential over the next decade. The Advance Vermont initiative seeks to boost to 70 percent the number of Vermonters with meaningful post-secondary credentials and degrees by the year 2025. To succeed in reaching that goal, we will need commitment and aggressive action by many parties.
The Vermont State Colleges stand ready to do our part. As a group, Castleton University, Community College of Vermont, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, and Vermont Technical College enroll more Vermonters than all of the other colleges and universities in Vermont combined. We are the extension of the public school system into the postsecondary years and offer an exceptional education at a very reasonable cost.
Like the public schools, we enroll a diverse student population, from high school valedictorians to students who have struggled in life and in school. Half of our students are the first in their family to go to college and we have a much higher percentage of students from low-income families than most other colleges. Many more of our students require a higher level of academic support and counseling in order to graduate than at other institutions of higher learning.
We are increasing our capacity to provide workforce education programs to employers around the state.
The Vermont State Colleges will continue to aggressively take steps to limit our cost of delivery and target available funding to things that contribute to a high quality educational experience for our students.
If we are to succeed in making it possible for all Vermonters to go to college, we must confront the clear connection between low state support for public higher education and low college enrollment rates. When state support is low, tuition is high, students take on more debt or don’t go to college, and increasingly counterproductive cost cutting becomes unavoidable at our public colleges. According to The College Board, Vermont has the second-highest in-state tuition at four year public institutions in the country. We are the 47th out of 50 in terms of state support for higher education.
The Legislature’s decision to increase state funding to the Vermont State Colleges for the first time in years indicates growing recognition of the need to make college affordability a front burner issue. We need to build on that recognition.
Vermont is at a turning point. It is time to recognize that post-secondary education is critical to our economy. It is time to agree that it is unacceptable that 40 percent of our high school graduates do not go on to college. The status quo in higher education is leaving too many behind, at great expense to our economy, our communities and individual Vermonters. We need to come together and provide an open door to post-secondary education for all who wish to secure a better future. We need to break through the dilemma of affordability caused by low state support, if we want to make any headway on closing the opportunity gap that is growing in our state.