by the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation
April 28, 2020
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a long-overdue public conversation about the value of college and career training in Vermont prompted by the Vermont State College System’s now-shelved proposal to shutter three campuses because of a “vicious cycle of decline” described by Chancellor Spaulding.
The pandemic may have precipitated the urgency of the Chancellor’s proposal but the reality facing Northern Vermont University, Vermont Technical College, Castleton University, and the Community College of Vermont (CCV) should not come as a surprise. Vermonters’ access to affordable public higher education has long been at risk.
We believe the Vermont State College System is the cornerstone of a statewide college and career training system equipped to support the economic mobility of Vermonters from low-income backgrounds at scale. CCV and other VSCS institutions offer many of the most affordable and shortest pathways to the highest-paying, highest-demand jobs that we’ve identified for Vermont in partnership with the Vermont Department of Labor.
And in case it’s not clear: this pandemic and its economic fallout make the need for these pathways more urgent, not less – particularly those that lead to high-paying jobs with thousands of projected openings in the coming years (think nurses, accountants and auditors, and carpenters).
As Vermont wrestles with what to do next, here’s what we urge:
Vermont must keep its foot on the gas of this conversation. The recent shelving of the Chancellor’s proposal doesn’t change the urgency of the realities facing Vermont’s higher education system and the students it serves. The system needs immediate and significant bridge funding – and Vermont needs the political courage and will to identify its core values and chart a public policy and funding roadmap for education and training after high school that aligns with those core values. Current VSCS students and graduating high school classes await clear paths forward.
The new policy and funding framework must transform the accessibility and affordability of college and career training for current students and the next generation. College and career training is the closest thing that exists to a silver bullet in advancing economic mobility. For decades, Vermont has been an outlier nationally in its funding of public higher education – a legacy of underfunding by a generation of policymakers. It’s not hard to connect this legacy to the 20% differential in the college continuation rates of low-income Vermont high school students as compared to their economically advantaged peers – or to the fact that Vermont has the highest poverty rate among young adults in New England. And so when Vermont re-conceives how higher education is designed and funded, it must always ask who is being served so we can center resources on Vermonters with the most to gain.
(Let’s not forget that today’s postsecondary students in Vermont are juggling work family, and other life responsibilities like no generation before them. According to recent data from Advance Vermont, twenty-five percent are parents. Over a third experience food or housing insecurity. And many of their peers are opting out of education and training after high school entirely.)
And now the hard part: there’s no getting around the fact that transitioning to the equitable college and career training system of tomorrow will require letting go of some things we hold dear as communities and as a state. It will require leadership and sacrifice among all higher education stakeholders. And although these costs will be steep, they can purchase a future with transformative value for Vermont and Vermonters. Where we can and as we’re able, let’s shift conversations about protecting the way things were to dreaming together about what’s possible and embracing the change that’s needed to get there.
Vermont can’t afford to lose any more time – or talent.