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Today’s Students Initiative

The Big Picture

An educated citizenry powers a prosperous and resilient economy and vibrant, civically engaged communities.

A Vermonter with the equivalent of a four-year degree will generate more than twice the financial benefits of a high school graduate through income and tax-related revenue (Federal Reserve Bank of Boston The Fiscal Impacts of College Attainment, 2007). There are also well-documented correlations between higher levels of education and non-monetized benefits for individuals, communities and society: lower dependence on safety nets; better health outcomes; less crime and incarceration; and increased civic participation.

The McClure Foundation’s 2018 Pathways to Promising Careers reports that between 2018-2028, 100 percent of Vermont’s high-demand, high-wage jobs will require education and training after high school — including degrees, certificates, occupational licenses, registered apprenticeships, and industry-recognized certifications.

Yet only 53 percent of Vermonters currently hold a postsecondary degree or credential. Why?

In part, because most programs are still designed for traditional students, defined as students between the ages of 17-21 attending four-year colleges and living on campus. While the majority of Vermont’s postsecondary students still meet this definition, the landscape of higher education is shifting, both in Vermont and nationally.

Illustration by Michelle Sayles

Post-Traditional Students

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (The Condition of Education 2018), traditional students now make up only 15 percent of the United States undergraduate population. The remaining 85 percent of students are considered “post-traditional” and are a diverse group of adult learners, full-time employees, low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, New Americans, students who commute to school, veterans, those who are incarcerated or recently incarcerated, and working parents. Typically, they are juggling multiple responsibilities, such as working, parenting and school, and paying their own bills.

With competing demands for their time and resources, it’s no surprise that nationally, 38 percent of students with work, family, and non-education financial obligations leave school in their first year, and 53 percent of student-parents leave college with no degree (Lumina Foundation, Today’s Students, 2018).

Data show that undergraduate and graduate students in Vermont are increasingly post-traditional. Between 2014-2018, enrollments grew for students who were over 25, attending part-time, and attending online (Vermont Higher Education Council, Fall 2018 Vermont Higher Education Enrollment report and Integrated Postsecondary Education System).

Vermonters also identify work and family obligations as barriers. In a 2018 Advance Vermont survey of Vermonters ages 18-60 without a degree or credential (Statewide Higher Education Survey), 40 percent cited family responsibilities as a barrier to securing a degree or credential, and 20 percent cited lack of access to affordable child care. Thirty percent were concerned about a loss of work income if they took classes.

Self-supporting students may also struggle with the basic costs of living, which can compound woes about loan debt, delay enrollment and reduce likelihood of graduation. The 2019 Vermont Basic Needs Budget (Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office) shows that a single parent with one child in rural Vermont needs to earn an annual income of $52,227 to cover food, housing, transportation, child care, and other basic needs.

A single parent living in rural Vermont with one child needs $52,227 per year to cover their basic needs.

 Opportunity for Action

In addition to demographic shifts, the skills and educational experiences that students need in order to succeed after high school continue to evolve. Economic, technical, and sociocultural changes create a demand for responsive curriculum and delivery models that adapt to a changing world. While some degree and credential programs are innovating, others have not been able to keep pace, and opportunities exist to further transform Vermont’s postsecondary system for 21st Century post-traditional learners.

If higher education fails to properly support today’s students across the finish line, we miss out on an opportunity to improve equity and opportunity for individual Vermonters, address urgent workforce and economic development needs, and secure the public benefits of an educated citizenry for Vermont’s future. By working together, Advance Vermont believes we can encourage and support more Vermonters to further their education beyond high school, with benefits for our citizens, communities, and economy.

    The Initiative

    We need to meet today’s students where they are. To increase awareness and address the gap between student need and postsecondary offerings, Advance Vermont is launching a multi-sector effort to transform the delivery of postsecondary education and training in Vermont to better serve today’s students. The goals of the initiative are to: 

    • Increase awareness among decisionmakers of the shifting demographic makeup of today’s students and the common barriers to enrollment and completion;
    • Support educational entities that provide postsecondary credentials in aligning their program offerings, institutional policies, and student supports with student need;
    • Engage employers as critical partners in accessing and supporting post-traditional students in their educational advancement and career development;
    • Develop and support cross-sector partnerships to facilitate a coordinated and collaborative response to the shifting landscape of postsecondary education and training.

    Today’s Students Summit: November 14, 2019

    The Today’s Students Summit convened stakeholders from across the state and sectors to transform the delivery of postsecondary education and training in Vermont to better serve today’s students. Leaders from Pk-12 education, postsecondary education and training, business, government, nonprofits, and philanthropy attended.


    • Heard from national and local leaders about trends in postsecondary education and training;
    • Learned about the shifting demographic makeup of Vermont’s current and potential students;
    • Discovered innovative approaches and funding opportunities for bridging the gap between traditional postsecondary education and the evolving needs of students, employers, and communities;
    • Participated in facilitated discussions with subject matter experts to identify which opportunities for innovation will have the greatest impact, and action steps for implementation.

    Participants walked away informed by relevant data on Vermont’s students, communities, and economy, equipped with new strategies for enacting change, and connected with a network of subject matter experts, potential partners, and funders.

    Today’s Students Workshop Series

    To continue the momentum of the Today’s Students Summit, Advance Vermont will host a series of workshops in 2020. Topics will be selected based upon the organizational-level and systems-level changes that Summit participants identify as priorities. The role of equity in transforming postsecondary education will be a driving theme. Possible examples include: 

    • Diversifying Pathways to Completion – How to integrate proven methods for accelerated and flexible credential completion, such as accelerated degree programs, prior learning assessment, competency-based learning, flexible pathways, distance learning, and blended models.
    • Partnerships for Credential Delivery – How to develop and manage successful collaborative partnerships between postsecondary education providers and other partners in delivery, such as Pk-12 education, employers, and government through work-based learning, dual enrollment and early college, industry advisory for education and training programs, employee tuition assistance or student loan debt repayment, public funding sources etc.
    • Innovation in Access Work – How to harness creativity and innovation to expand and improve equitable access by addressing the barriers that students face, including working with students, families, and communities to address housing, transportation, child care and food security needs.

    The goal of this series is to spur organizational and systems-level change in Vermont by:

    • Providing Summit attendees with continuity in access to experts, knowledge, and resources;
    • Developing an informal cohort for peer learning, support, and accountability; and
    • Sparking a cultural shift within Vermont’s postsecondary landscape by embracing adaptation, innovation, and transformation as essential tenets of growth.

    Beyond Convenings: Furthering the Impact of the Initiative

    Advance Vermont has identified communications, data & research, policy, and convening work as the key “levers” to achieving our mission. While convenings aimed at driving organizational and systematic change are the major thrust of the Today’s Students Initiative, that work will be complemented by communications, data, and policy efforts led by Advance Vermont to further spur systems-level change. Based on lessons learned throughout the initiative, likely projects include the analysis of current data collection mechanisms to identify areas for improvement, the development of state policy recommendations supporting postsecondary transformation, and the deployment of public facing resources and tools- to help today’s students access and complete postsecondary education and training.


    Ready to join our partnership?
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    We’re always looking to help make connections and support innovative projects.