As state legislators and Vermont educators and school administrators discuss ways to improve school outcomes late in this legislative session, here are a few points to acknowledge:
• 60 percent of the jobs being created in the next decade will require a college degree;
• More than half of Vermonters over the age of 25 do not have a college degree;
• Many of Vermont’s most progressive employers can’t find enough employees with the skills they need to grow and succeed;
• Only 44 percent of Vermont high school graduates will enroll in a college next year.
The last point is the shocker.
In this era of global economics, knowledge is king. The jobs of tomorrow will require students who can think on their feet, adapt quickly, and have definitive skills that require a post-secondary education. That doesn’t mean students have to prepare to go to Harvard or MIT, but it does mean the good jobs (from auto mechanics to graphics) require a new level of sophistication that demands schooling past the twelfth grade.
Moreover, as a state we have almost 90 percent of incoming freshmen who will go on to graduate from a Vermont high school. That’s exemplary. We rank second in the nation in high school graduation rates.
But just as spectacularly, we fall off the chart by ranking 47th in the nation in terms of graduates continuing with higher education.
What gives? It’s a mix of the high cost of education, family culture and familiarity. The cost of a college or higher education degree is going up faster than the cost of health care. Students are being saddled with debt that often takes years to pay off. It doesn’t take much convincing to get that recent high school graduate to rationalize that they’d be better off just getting a job and foregoing the debt; and that’s particularly true if their parents didn’t attend college and don’t have the ability to help with financing.
To that end, the Legislature is considering two bills, H.776 and S.233, that address those issues by allowing high school students to take a few college level classes in their junior and senior years of high school. Called “dual enrollment,” the classes count for college credits at no additional cost to the high school student.
The goal is simple: get more students to enroll in college level classes while still in high school so they understand what is expected of them. It also reduces the cost of a college education. Students are allowed to take two college-level classes in their junior and senior years. If a high school student finishes with four college-level classes, that is almost the equivalent of a college semester.
As importantly, the college class experience helps provide feedback to students about their academic skills and helps them better plan and prepare for college while they’re still in high school.
Nor is the idea new. Vermont already has two mechanisms that provide for dual enrollment: 1) As part of the Next Generation Initiative, high school students have been able to enroll alongside college students on-site at a Vermont college, which include the state’s five state colleges, the University of Vermont and six private independent colleges. Roughly 600 Vermont students are supported through a General Fund appropriation of $400,000; 2) through federal Perkins funding, about 464 students are enrolled in a college course through Fast Forward programs at technical centers. From that program, 73 percent have historically enrolled in college.
The goal of the two bills facing the Legislative in these last weeks is simple: to increase the number of students who are exposed to either of these programs, and get more Vermont students to attend college. To do that, the legislation would appropriate $1.2 million from the education fund in fiscal year 2013, which would accommodate roughly 800 additional students into dual enrollment programs.
As a matter of public policy, this is a no-brainer.
The one sticking point appears to be how the measure is funded. With the Perkins grants at the whim of a conservative Congress hell-bent on slashing programs and taxes, that source of funding is in jeopardy; and with pressure on the state’s general fund, many believe the funding should be moved into the education fund, which makes a lot of common sense.
But legislators must look at the big picture and remind themselves that such minor obstacles should not stifle important policy. It’s up to our legislators to work out the details and keep their eyes on the prize: offering another 800 students the encouragement they need to attend and graduate from college, while also providing Vermont employers with the skilled employees they need. In fact, passage of this legislation is not only an important component in Vermont’s goal of becoming ‘the education state,’ it’s also one of the most important jobs bill the state will consider this year.
Angelo S. Lynn